Aspen Times Weekly: Hit & Run with John Colson | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Hit & Run with John Colson

with John Colson

I used to cover the oil and gas industry, as a reporter and a news writer, but now I don't.

The reasons for the switch are not at issue here. Suffice it to say that now I feel freed up to write in my column about this topic, a topic that has fascinated me for more than 30 years .

I should point out, for clarity's sake, that I have now lived through, and covered as a reporter, two petroleum-based boom in this region.

The first occasion coincided with Garfield County's oil shale boom in the late 1970s and early 19980s.

It started with my first tour of duty at the paper known at the time as The Glenwood Post, where I watched a fellow reporter, Gary Schmitz, bob and weave his way through coverage of the early impacts of the burgeoning oil shale industry based in the Piceance Basin of northwestern Colorado.

Schmitz, as I recall, was skeptical regarding the claims of the industry's titans, who predicted a quick solution concerning how to get the oil-like organic substance known as kerogen out of a deeply-buried stratum of rock and turn it into fuel.

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My own direct involvement in oil and gas coverage started after Schmitz had left to work for other papers, around 1980. For various reasons, I ended up doing a two-year stint as a weekly-newspaper journalist in Rifle and Parachute, which together sat at the epicenter of the oil shale boom.

Working as an editor, reporter, photographer and columnist for first one, then another paper in Rifle, I found myself steeped in the same kind of skepticism about the industry and its promises. Many of the stories, editorials and columns I wrote reflected that skepticism in the words and images of some of the people living in the area.

Before long, on May 2, 1982, the big dog in the oil shale industry, Exxon, as it was then known, pulled the plug on its oil shale endeavors, for reasons that never were made entirely clear. Exxon's departure instantly wiped out thousands of livelihoods and precipitated a general pull-out by other companies.

The resulting economic vacuum lead to a decade-long recession that affected the entire state, and oil shale continues to be little more than a dream in an engineer's eye.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I was back at the Post, now called the Post Independent, this time reporting on the boom in gas drilling that has held Garfield County in its grip for more than a decade.

And now that regional boom, too, appears to have petered out, at least for now, with the departure of the Canadian energy giant, Encana Oil and Gas, USA. That leaves Williams Mid-Stream and WPX Energy as the last big players in the Piceance Basin gas patch.

If the boom truly has gone bust, though, the socio-economic let-down for the region will not be nearly as severe as it was in 1982. This is partly because the gas industry never achieved the wholesale proportions of an epic boom in Garfield County, directly employing hundreds instead of many thousands.

Plus, the industry is still pumping out millions of gallon-equivalents of gas every year from the 10,000 or so wells dug over the past decade or so, which will continue to pour impact-mitigation revenue into Garfield County's coffers for some time to come.

I wonder, though, about the socio-political fallout from Encana's decision, if there is any. Already comments have appeared on regional newspaper websites to the effect that the good times are over in this region.

Interestingly, some already are blaming the end of the boom on "the tree huggers," just as they did when the industry suffered an earlier contraction a few years ago.

But the true cause of the pullout, as Encana has admitted, is the steep drop in natural gas prices prompted by oversupply — an inevitable result of the boom — and dwindling demand prompted by greater energy-conservation efforts nationwide and by an upsurge in the use of alternative energies.

A saying purportedly derived from an ancient Chinese curse springs to mind in the midst of all this — "May you live in interesting times."

We certainly are.

jcolson@aspentimes.com