The traffic rolling past Mayor Floyd McDaniel's store is disconcertingly heavy. The small town looks alive--and when you are looking for a ghost, that can be unsettling.
More than two months ago, Exxon Corp. pulled out of the $5 billion Colony Oil Shale Project in western Colorado. Construction workers packed their families and U-Hauls and left, and Parachute appeared headed from boom to bust.
But Parachute isn't busted, even though it no longer is booming.
It wasn't that Exxon's departure had no effect. Battlement Mesa, the new town that Exxon was building for anticipated thousands of workers, is a specter hunched on the mountainside above Parachute, and Parachute lives with the fear that the single remaining oil shale project may shut down. But other small towns farther away from the remaining Union Oil Co. shale project have suffered more than Parachute; in Rifle, for instance, approximately 300 houses are on the market, sales taxes are declining and crime has increased.
"Fifteen months ago, our population was 300," said Mayor McDaniel. "Today, even after the Exxon pullout we have a population of 1,200. . . . We didn't lose any population."
What happened, according to McDaniel and others, is that workers at the Union project who had been commuting from towns farther away moved into the houses vacated because of Exxon's departure. That kept the population relatively stable.
In addition, Parachute and Garfield County ended up with new housing, a park, a new city hall and new schools. With all this development, the town's total indebtedness is $250,000, owed to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, McDaniel said with a slight smile. "I feel the town is better off, because it has gained certain capital improvements. There has been housing built, and businesses opened. It's the first time that has happened with oil shale," he said.
Housing was built by Union Oil on land annexed by Parachute and added to its tax base. The new town hall was built with money from the state's energy impact fund, augmented with contributions from Union and the Colony project. Parachute's first town park was built with an assessment levied on housing and industrial development that accompanied the boom. In all, the town of Parachute pocketed about $900,000 from the state's oil shale trust fund and energy impact fund, both set up to insulate communities from boom-and-bust shocks.
Two Garfield County School District 16 schools were constructed under different financial arrangements with Exxon and Union that spared the county the front-end expense and protect the county from debt if the oil shale projects don't add enough to the tax base to cover the costs. "There is no way that the taxpayers of these small communities will have to pay for these facilities," said Lawrence St. John, superintendent of the school district.
The oil shale has been sitting there a long time--an energy resource so obvious that patches of rock on the mountains often catch fire when lightning strikes. Would-be developers have come and gone and the area's prosperity has alternately soared and nose-dived.
The recent boom was produced by skyrocketing oil prices. Because no one has figured out a relatively cheap way to extract oil from the rock, it becomes commercially viable only if the market will pay premium prices for the oil.
"Colorado was targeted to become the oil shale capital of the world," said Gov. Richard Lamm. "At one point there were nine major oil shale projects." Trying to adjust to the rapid changes in the outlook that the market produced is "like changing a tire at 60 miles an hour," he said. "Synthetic fuels is definitely the wild card out here."
Exxon took several actions to mitigate the impact of its sudden pullout. After the shutdown, the company met with Garfield County officials and the four towns in the county, including Parachute, to talk about what needed to be done. Exxon will provide $60,000 to Garfield County and $60,000 to Parachute in 1983 under commitments that were made before the pullout. Exxon also paid for extra deputies added by the county sheriff's office to cope with reaction to the pullout.
Exxon officials also are meeting with the state's mine land reclamation department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss what reclamation needs to be done.
"I think they're really being fairly good from their viewpoint," said Lamm. Exxon has not left us holding the bag . . . In the short run, they didn't close down the town and run. Given the history of the West, Colony has done a lot better than others who have loved us and left us."
On the other hand, he noted, "they promised us a tiger in our tank and we really got a white elephant in our back yard."
"Having lived in this community for 57 years and having thought we got along fine without it, I was reluctant to see Colony come in," said St. John. "But very quickly you get caught up in the development--and it was well designed," he said. "They were good people trying to help us out. It's a shame that it had to shut down."
McDaniel concedes that the Exxon pullout left behind more than public works. "One thing is the uncertainty, with the Exxon pullout, of how much will go on. There is always the fear that Union will do the same thing."