Thirty years later, Exxon’s ‘White Paper’ is a vision ‘in search of reality’

By Jim Spehar

“The task is great.  So is the need.  And there is no time to lose.”  — Exxon’s 1980 “White Paper.”

Those stirring words concluded a 10-page document released 30 years ago this month outlining Exxon’s grand plan to help solve the energy crisis of the 1970s.  Eye-popping forecasts staggered western Colorado, which was already ground zero for government-sponsored efforts to develop synthetic fuels, including oil shale, to counter oil embargoes and long lines at gasoline pumps.

Exxon’s “White Paper,” formally entitled “The Role of Synthetic Fuels in the United States Energy Future,” predicted synfuels would provide 12 percent of total U.S. energy demand by the year 2000, becoming a 15 million barrel-per-day industry in the 21st century. Eight million barrels would come from oil shale, primarily in the Piceance and Uintah basins of northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah. The remaining 7 million barrels per day would be derived from coal, mostly from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana as well as the Dakotas and Southern Rockies.

By now, there were to be more than 1 million people working in the synfuels industry in western Colorado. In each of six huge pits, workers were to be moving 3.7 million tons of material every day to get at “the rock that burns.” Needed water could come from the Missouri and other faraway river basins.

Less than 24 months later, those dreams crumbled on “Black Sunday,” May 2, 1982, when the same corporation that made those grandiose forecasts pulled the plug on its Colony Project in western Colorado.

Now promises of new technology revive oil shale research and development and renewed leasing of federal oil shale lands. Some proponents and politicians call shale country “the next Saudi Arabia.”

Dick Lamm, Colorado’s governor in 1980, warns that oil shale differs from other energy development.

“A lot of this stuff is like waves on an ocean. Some days they’re bigger than others,” he said. “But oil shale is like a tsunami … something of a scale and magnitude that it just demands special attention, special warning and special examination.”

Former Grand Junction resident Bill Ekstrand’s title back then —resident manager for Exxon and president of Battlement Mesa (the company town built to house legions of expected workers) —understated his job of dismantling Exxon’s oil shale effort after “Black Sunday.” He’s not optimistic about any revival, even if world events or domestic needs find us clamoring for more fuel.

“You can’t scramble for oil shale.  The lead times are incredible. The capital requirements are incredible,” Ekstrand said. “It can’t be the kind of thing where you know the reserves are there and mobilize a whole lot of drilling rigs and go get it.

Tim Schultz, another veteran of the last oil shale boom, is now president of the Denver-based Boettcher Foundation. In June 1980 he was a 31-year-old county commissioner in Rio Blanco County, home of the richest oil shale reserves.

Schultz and other local leaders, Lamm said, “weren’t people who were willing to sell out their heritage for a promise.”

Then, as now, some people were certain oil shale would go forward.

“We kept saying: ‘But, what if?’ ” Shultz recalled.  “It’s kind of hard to plan for the peaks but you always want to remember that those valleys are just around the corner.”

Exxon’s “White Paper” is often lampooned for missing the mark. But energy analyst Randy Udall doesn’t think it’s much different from other forecasts, historical or current.

Most, long-range energy forecasts come up very far from the mark, whether they are issued by the industry, the EIA (the federal Energy Information Administration), or enviros, he says. “This isn’t a forecast so much as a dream or a nightmare … visions in search of reality.”

But Udall worries it might not take much to reset the stage.

“If oil imports stopped tomorrow, if the Persian Gulf went up in flames, if terrorists successfully attacked the main Saudi export terminal, there would be calls for a similar effort.”

Lamm expects another run at oil shale development: “I really have to think that the world energy situation is such that, almost inevitably, oil shale will be tested again, this time on a larger scale.”

Schultz is skeptical.  “I seriously wonder if oil shale ever catches up in price,” he said. “And then, during that time when it’s always trying to catch the price of (conventional) oil, if we (might) develop other technologies that move us away from fossil fuels.”

Twelve years as a western Colorado elected official and a half-dozen years as a sometimes consultant to Shell’s Mahogany Project inform my own concerns about revived oil shale efforts.

New research and development efforts are science projects with too little attention paid to potential social and economic impacts. If technological promises bear fruit, if commercial leasing follows, if another crisis speeds up development, impacted communities will again scramble to keep pace.

A decade ago Grand Junction’s “Vision 2020” effort included interviews with more than 1,000 local residents. Then, 20 years after those disproven “White Paper” forecasts, respondents still named Black Sunday as the defining moment in our community’s evolution.

Will that painful history repeat itself?

Former Colorado Municipal League President Jim Spehar is a native of western Colorado, a former Grand Junction mayor, City Council member and Mesa County commissioner.


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