Exxon retirees still take pride in their oil shale work

I confess that I’m an environmentalist, an earth muffin. So what was I doing recently having drinks and dinner at the Doubletree by Hilton in Grand Junction with retired executives from Exxon-Mobil, the largest oil company in the world?

Exxon and I go way back. In the early 1980s when Exxon jumped into developing oil shale, I was teaching fourth grade in Silt.

The oil shale boom was amazing. The largest corporation in the world decided to create an 8 million barrel per day industry by 2010. Thousands of workers poured into the Colorado River Valley from the depressed Midwest and South. Beginning in 1980 the local economy roared with Exxon spending $1 million a day in a valley 60 miles long and 20 miles wide. That was like driving a dump truck full of $100 bills through small towns and leaving the tailgate open.

It was a free-for-all with a rush to build new schools, add on to hospitals, pave streets, erect town halls, hire deputies, plat subdivisions, recruit teachers, and on 2,300 acres across the Colorado River from Parachute, build an entirely new town called Battlement Mesa.

Everyone trotted out wish lists for new infrastructure, libraries, services. The future couldn’t have looked better.

Then on Sunday, May 2, 1982, it all went pop. The boom busted. Exxon’s board of directors frowned at the declining price of oil and pulled the plug. Jerked the rug. Left the valley in shock.

I lived through all that. I watched my friends lose their jobs, their houses, and finally, their marriages. Businesses that had survived the Great Depression failed after Exxon’s pullout. Overnight, 2,300 people lost their jobs. Within a week there were no U-Haul trailers within 100 miles. Over the next few years 15,000 people would become Colorado exiles. My wife and I left, too.

We went to graduate school and there, 1,200 miles away, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the history of oil shale development. It became a book, “Boomtown Blues: Colorado Oil Shale,” which won the Colorado Book Award. Business Week wrote, “Gulliford frames the tale as a morality play in which the villain is played by Exxon ... The book is more than colorful history. It is a warning we would do well to heed.”

So what was I doing drinking Texas Shiner Bock beer with 32 Exxon retirees and their spouses? Trying to learn what had happened to them, to put a face on a corporation.

In 2010 retirees, who had worked on the Colony Oil Shale Project and Battlement Mesa staged a 30-year-reunion to commemorate the project’s beginning. This spring, they came together to remember the bust. I received an invitation from Rhonda Atchee, then executive secretary to Charles Pence, the man who had taken sagebrush and hay meadows near Parachute and created a new town. What the hell, I thought. I’m an historian.  I might learn something. And I did.

I’d already learned that Exxon had misled county commissioners in Mesa, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties by painting a rosy picture of massive oil shale development while the company itself had secret, 30-day shutdown clauses so that it could get out of construction contracts.

“Life’s funny and deals you different cards,” stated the silver-haired Pence, former president of Battlement Mesa, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon. He cautioned, “You have to stop and look all the way through the bust. The oil company thought about the shareholders. A company like that can’t accommodate a small group of people.”

Exxon veteran Bob Skyles said, “When we came here in 1981 we thought this was to be our final assignment. We were heartbroken after the shutdown. Exxon came in here with both feet, and they didn’t have their shoes on.”

I agree that corporate machismo had a lot to do with Exxon’s boisterous push for oil shale. Fortune Magazine estimated that Exxon spent $720 million in less than two years. I learned the total cost probably was $1 billion.

Employees felt numb by the shutdown, just as locals did. A few former workers long to retire in Colorado. Some couples already have. Engineer Larry Hayes, who was in charge of the oil shale mine, said, “Even though the project failed the esprit de corps continues to this day.” He’s written a privately printed book titled “Lost Colony: Exxon’s Bold Oil Shale Venture.” Hayes explained that working on the project was “one of the best times I’ve ever had. We lived in nine different states and three foreign countries, but we never had more fun than here.”

I was impressed by their allegiance to each other and their commitment to their careers, but I couldn’t help but thinking of all the local lives shattered by Exxon’s corporate hubris — the decade-long economic depression between Grand Junction and Rifle, and all it entailed. History isn’t just what we remember, it’s also what we choose to forget.

Oil shale is still there.

Thirty years ago, Fortune Magazine wrote that Exxon’s departure from oil shale “had all the abruptness of a teenager making a screeching u-turn.” Let’s not repeat past mistakes. Let’s wait for a proven technology that does not squander water, pollute the air and threaten wildlife and archaeological sites. The Old West was boom and bust. The Next West must seek environmentally and socially responsible energy development.

Imagine if in the 1980s, Exxon’s board of directors had dedicated that same billion dollars to solar energy instead of squeezing rocks. Where would we be now?

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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