PARACHUTE, COLO. -- How much money have you spent on gasoline in your life? Here's a chance to get some of it back, if you want to live in western Colorado.
The new owners of Battlement Mesa, a fledgling planned community on the southern bank of the Colorado River, will sell you a new three-bedroom, two-bath house, with two-car garage, golf club privileges and a majestic view of the high mesa country, for as little as $49,900. They can do it because they are heavily, if unhappily, subsidized by Exxon Corp.
The story of Battlement Mesa is the story of the sensational boom, followed overnight by the bust, that swept across Colorado's Piceance Creek basin and parts of neighboring Utah and Wyoming in the shale oil fever of the early 1980s. Exxon spent a reported $100 million to develop Battlement Mesa, which was planned to have housing, schools, stores and recreation facilities for 25,000 people expected to pour into the basin to mine and sell the precious oil that was to be extracted from its rock.
That was a decade ago, when oil prices were heading toward $40 a barrel and there seemed to be no limit. Exxon put in streets, water, power lines, a shopping center and a golf course. But the crash that drove crude oil prices down below $15 a barrel in the early 1980s undermined the role of shale oil as an economic energy source.
Exxon abandoned its shale recovery project in 1982, but tried to recover its investment by developing Battlement Mesa as a retirement community. Last December, paying more in Garfield County property taxes than it ever recouped in sales, Exxon unloaded the property to a Denver developer.
The transaction was not announced at the time, and Exxon has refused to disclose the price. According to Garfield County land records, it was $1.5 million -- dramatic proof, if further proof were needed, that the vast and sparsely settled land atop the Green River shale formation has been spared, at least until now, its intended fate as a Saudi Arabia of the American West.
The shale oil is still here -- as much as 600 billion barrels in the rocky hills of the three states, with recoverable reserves about equal to all the crude oil reserves of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, according to oil industry analysts. But the cost of producing it is more than $40 a barrel, so most of it will stay untouched until world oil prices make it worth extracting. This prospect was not even on the horizon before the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait this past week, and remains remote even now.
Unocal Corp. is the only one of the major oil companies still in the shale oil business, producing about 7,500 barrels a day. Occidental Petroleum Corp. is planning a more modest venture on federal land in Rio Blanco County, to the north.
Otherwise, all that remains of the shale oil frenzy are a few odd relics: a sign alongside Interstate 70 offering to sell a ranch owned by Mobil Oil Co.; a notice on Railroad Avenue in Rifle saying the pavement is an asphalt made from shale oil by a local company; an empty "man camp" of prefabricated houses built by oil companies to house bachelor miners and construction workers; a few shiny new schools and town halls in communities too small to afford them.
In towns such as Parachute, Silt and New Castle, it seems as if as many businesses are for sale as are operating.
"People may never recover emotionally and financially from the devastating consequences of the bust," wrote Andrew Gulliford in his book "Boomtown Blues." "Confidence in their own abilities has been badly shaken. Younger men have watched their dreams dissolve, and older men who expected a secure financial future cannot even afford to retire."
Gulliford, who lived through the entire boom and bust cycle, wrote an angry book and directed most of his anger at Exxon, which precipitated the bust by pulling the plug overnight on its $5 billion Colony oil shale project.
According to Gulliford, the people of the basin invested their time, money and hearts in a future built on shale. When Exxon bowed to economic reality and pulled out, "The trauma of the bust was in direct proportion to Exxon's grandiose expectations. Because everyone had believed in oil shale and Exxon, the bust created deep feelings of anxiety and doubt, coupled with realistic fears of financial failure."Only now is the Piceance (pronounced Pee-Ontz) Basin beginning to recover from the sudden deflation that followed the sudden boom.
"There are little pockets of -- well, not prosperity, but things coming back," said Jim Kraft, director of the Small Business Development Center at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs. "But you've got to be very careful. You can't just go in and open a shoe store -- the malls in Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs have that." He said that "mom and pop retail" is the most development some small communities can sustain.
"Things have bottomed out," said Jim Komatinsky, economic development director of Rio Blanco County. "We lost population for several years, but we think it's turned around now." Rio Blanco, which has a population of 5,200 in an area six times the size of Montgomery County, Md., has agreed to invest some public money in the proposed Occidental project in the hope of a "significant economic stimulus," Komatinsky said. But even if the development goes through the benefits will be limited because "people will live and shop in Rifle, and the engineers will come from Grand Junction."Rio Blanco won't even collect property tax from Occidental, he said, because its shale site is on federal land.
According to Lowell Torkelson, economic development director of Garfield County, "things bottomed out in 1986. The comeback started in 1988, and now it's in high gear."
One of the most complex road-building projects in U.S. history -- punching I-70 through the narrow, twisting Glenwood Canyon -- has provided several hundred jobs, he said. Natural gas drilling has increased in the southern part of the basin. And tourism is thriving.
He said the real estate boom in the ski resort towns of Aspen and Vail, just east of the basin, has "generated so much employment from Rifle eastward that the rental housing vacancy rate is less than 1 percent." At the western end of the basin, in Grand Junction, tourism has generated a new burst of economic activity not dependent on the energy industry, he said.
"Grand Junction hit bottom after Exxon pulled out," said Clark. "Now all of western Colorado is getting much stronger in tourism. We always thought we didn't have to promote it because we're the most beautiful state in the country, but a lot of those perceptions have changed."
In the vision of sales director Brett Marshall, the community best positioned to take advantage of that growth in tourism is Battlement Mesa.
"Everyone in the flat-land states all around us wants a home in the mountains," he said. "This was Exxon's white elephant. They put in everything, and now people come here and say, 'Wow!' It's unbelievable to find that kind of infrastructure 40 miles from a major town."
Battlement Mesa has 3,600 acres under development, he said. "I've marketed 45,000 housing units in my life," he said, "but I've never before seen a development where all the amenities were put in first."