Boom puts Rifle, mayor in spotlight |

Boom puts Rifle, mayor in spotlight

Heidi RiceGlenwood Springs correspondentAspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. Mayor Keith Lambert is getting used to speaking to reporters from local, state and international media such as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, LExpress from France and Belgium Public Radio.In fact, he has an interview with CNBC on Tuesday.Theyre all interested in energy, Lambert said. Every single one of them. They want to know about natural gas versus gas at the gas pump.But some reporters are doing their homework and some arent, Lambert said.They dont understand the geography or the geology of the area, he said. I tell them to get yourselves out here and look at it. I tell them the history of the area, about Black Sunday and how the gas industry is prevalent here.He informs them that there are currently 5,000 wells in the ground and another 50,000 expected in the future.Some of the reporters have a handle on it and some dont, Lambert said.Oil shale development, which is slated to make a return in the next 10-15 years, is a hot topic. Theyre even talking about it in Washington, D.C. oil shale this and oil shale that, Lambert said. This area has more (oil shale) reserves than the rest of the world. If you took every known reserve in this area and put it into one basket, that basket in the northwest region (of Colorado) would be more than anywhere else in the world.But an oil shale boom also reminds longtime area residents of what happened in the past.It was on Sunday, May 2, 1982, when oil workers showed up to their jobs, only to find that Exxon Corp. had pulled out overnight, leaving more than 2,000 people out of work. The day has since come to be known as Black Sunday.For those of us who were around on Black Sunday, it was like if you were alive and knew where you were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated or for 9/11, Lambert said. You knew where you were and what you were doing because it was burned into your subconscious.When the workers arrived, the gates were locked and security guards stood by.According to my understanding, a shift change had taken place and they literally locked the gates, Lambert said. People still had their personal effects inside. People showed up and they were locked out with guards standing outside.The bust put thousands out of work and was a huge hit on the economy,Our house lost half its value in one weeks time, Lambert said. Our street alone had a 60 percent vacancy. For some of us that stuck around it was hard times.Lambert remembered the family across the street had a barbecue on Saturday night and on Sunday morning, they were gone.There were people lined up around the block at the National Bank of Rifle, Lambert recalled. The FDIC came in. It was something out of the dust bowl days of Rifle. That one industry had such a big presence for a time in the community.

Results of two recent studies warn the city to be cautious about depending on the energy industry, which could crowd out other businesses.According to a study specifically on Rifle conducted by BBC Research & Consulting of Denver, Rifle could become overly dependent on energy development and, when the industry declines, the other supports for the areas economy may have already withered as a result of crowding out, the report says.Industries undermined by the energy boom could include: agriculture, which could suffer from urbanization and rising land values; and tourism, which is hurt by a lack of available hotel rooms, competition for employees and declining aesthetic values, the study says.But right now, the booming energy industry is a large influence in the number of motels being constructed within the city, along with an increase in residential developments, restaurants and other businesses. The energy industry boom in the area is projected to mean a population growth in Rifle that exceeds Glenwood Springs, increased property values, a greater demand for city services, traffic congestion, a reduced number of available hotel rooms for tourists and competition for local workers.The Rifle study echoes the results of a four-county regional study commissioned by the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado (AGNC), which looked at Garfield, Mesa, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties, which was released earlier this year.That study projected more people in Rifle, fewer workers available, an increase in housing prices and a continued increase in gas drilling activity through 2015, tapering off by 2025.I think for Rifle and the Garfield County area, the energy industry will continue, said Mike Braaten, government affairs and energy coordinator for the city of Rifle. Even when the drilling stops, in the city well see a significant portion of the population living here.

According to the studies, oil and gas activity will increase through 2015 and then stabilize and diminish through 2035. Gas wells in Garfield County are projected to peak in 2015 and then dramatically taper off by 2025.Over the next two decades, the focus of new well development will shift north from Garfield County to Rio Blanco County, the study says.However, maintenance work and gas workers living in Rifle will likely continue.The drilling might go up north, but production and maintenance employees will remain here, said Aaron Diaz, executive director of the AGNC.But like everything, eventually the energy boom in this area will come to an end, Lambert said.The whole idea of the study results were to help ensure that the city is in a good position when the energy boom comes to an end.I anticipate when the industry leaves when the resources are depleted we are in a place that a dip in the economic road is not a downfall that takes us years to recover from, Lambert said. The whole goal is to create a well-rounded community that has commercial, retail and all the things that makes us whole so when that day comes, we are well-situated.And as Rifle grows, so does its reputation both locally and worldwide. And Lambert is becoming used to the attention.I can imagine some small-time mayors being bowled over by the media attention, but for me, its becoming the norm, Lambert said with a laugh. Were not just a backwoods town anymore.

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