Gas next door will likely stay there
EAGLE COUNTY – While neighboring Garfield County is experiencing a natural gas boom that has it festooned with drilling rigs and drilling crews, Eagle County is rig-free.You can blame Mother Nature, said Genevieve Young, a petroleum geologist with the Colorado Geological Survey, who said the coal beds that produce the natural gas have long since eroded from Eagle County.”The sediments are no longer there,” she said. Those sediments came from a huge lake and swamp that covered large parts of the state 145 million years ago during the Cretaceous Era, when there were dinosaurs roaming the area. The dead vegetation from that swamp accumulated in deep layers and over time it was buried by sediments and converted to coal after being squeezed by overlying layers, Young said. A by-product of that decomposition and compression is coal and natural gas that remains trapped in the rock.The huge Piceance Basin (pronounced “pee-awnce”) that covers most of the central and northwestern part of Garfield County has plenty of those deposits and more importantly, plenty of coal bed methane gas.In Eagle County there are no pending or existing gas drilling rig applications with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Morris Bell, a geologist for the commission.A radioactive resultFor Garfield County those prehistoric deposits have created a tax windfall as the energy-hungry country taps it. The two major natural gas drilling companies in Garfield County paid $27 million in property and other taxes to the county, towns and schools.There are an estimated 1,000 “roughnecks,” or drill rig workers, helping punch holes in the earth in search of the fuel.But the drilling creates plenty of demand for services and expensess, said Tresi Houpt, a Garfield County Commissioner. “It’s more complex than just saying it’s bringing in a certain dollar figure,” she said. “Road maintenance, social services and emergency services also have to increase.”It’s not unlike the resource mined in Eagle County – tourism. Vail and Beaver Creek ski resorts each year generate nearly 2.4 million skier days, and those visitors create a huge demand for services ranging from buses to water treatment plants.But like all things related to mining, history has shown that a boom will be followed by a bust.The Piceance Basin in the 1970s and early 1980s was the epicenter of an ambitious plan to cook oil out of huge oil shale deposits using massive underground chambers. There was even an underground nuclear device exploded near Rulison, west of Rifle, in an attempt to rend oil and gas from the rock. It produced radioactive oil and gas. Gas and hot airPropped up by escalating oil prices, the oil shale program promised economic prosperity and a huge employment base on the Western Slope. Exxon invested more than $5 billion in facilities and land to extract oil from the shale deposits, and employed 2,200, according to published reports. Exxon and other companies began to buy up huge parcels of land to begin mining. Towns on the Western Slope were poised for a tenfold increase in population, according to projections. It was a classic boom.That evaporated literally overnight on “Black Friday,” May 2, 1982, when the oil companies pulled the plug on the project. With global oil prices in decline, cooking oil out of the shale proved more expensive than what the oil could sell for.The resulting bust was felt from Denver to Grand Junction, news reports indicate, and it created a recession in the state’s economy. The ripple effect caused towns that had depend on the tax windfall the boom created to downsize their budgets.Another cycle?Will that happen with the boom in Garfield County and could that spill over to Eagle County? Probably not, Houpt said, because the county is reluctant to put all its eggs on a mining-dependent basket.”Because people did live through a bust in the ’80s, it’s something you plan for,” she said. “You make sure you don’t rely on one economic base.”It is estimated by industry experts that the supply of coal bed methane in the Piceance Basin could last as long as three decades.Houpt said she’s more concerned about the effects on the environment, health and quality of life than she is in predicting a bust.The economic impact to Eagle County of a mining bust in the gas fields of the Piceance Basin in Garfield County would more than likely be secondary. Eagle County does not receive any minerals severance tax money from mining, said Mike Roeper, Eagle County’s finance director.When Black Friday occurred in 1982 the state was already in a recession and interest rates were 20 percent and higher, said Tom Harned, an Eagle County resident since 1971.”In general we were already in a tough market,” he said. “It wasn’t near as tragic in Eagle County as it was for folks in Parachute and Rifle.”But with Eagle County’s dependence on tourism, it could be vulnerable to an economic downturn such as that which occurred after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.Staff Writer Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 450, or firstname.lastname@example.org.