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Letter to the editor

Steve Zorichak

There is absolutely no good reason to read the following essay. All of it was true and very valid when it was written over 30 years ago. The visionaries of western Colorado were writing about one-quarter of a million new residents to the oil shale and coal industry areas of our state. They were also writing about the billions of dollars spent already in leasing mineral deposits from the federal and state governments, buying hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water rights, building whole towns for the workers in the Rifle-DeBeque canyon area, building schools and hospitals to support the large influx of workers and their families, all within the next decade. None of these projects ever came to fruition. So you really don’t need to read any more of this.Twenty years ago the OPEC nations cut the projected price of crude oil in half, from $25 per barrel to $12.50. The reason was that an experimental pilot process for refining synthetic crude oil located near Rifle had produced the “syn-crude” at an estimated $14 per barrel cost. This announcement produced the cutting in half of real crude prices, thus ending the burgeoning oil shale development and killing Colorado’s short-lived energy empir -dreams. Massive new office building projects were foreclosed on because of 80 percent vacancy rates in Denver.No, this is not a story about oil pricing. It is about what we like to call “open space.”How many of us can remember a pink cover sheet of the final edition of the Denver Post? Would anyone recall a regular feature titled “On The Westside,” by Robert Tweedle, editor of the Western Slope Bureau of the Post? One of his weekly headlines was: “Western Slope Growth Fast Becoming Moot.”A few quotes from his thousand-plus words seem relevant to the open space discussion that has been ongoing in Commentary:”There are still places where it can be heard, but the growth vs. no-growth debate on the Western Slope is fast becoming moot.””The arguments are beginning to focus on how fast growth can occur, on who will make the decisions about it and who will pay for it. An explicit part of the process, of course, is who will benefit from it.””Almost everywhere there are multiplying signs that change and development are taking place more swiftly than many of us realize. We see the trees but not the forest.””THE EAGLE RIVER VALLEY IS BEING TRANSFORMED BY CLUSTERS OF CONDOMINIUMS, TOWNHOUSES, AND MOBILE HOMES (emphasis mine). Ditto the Colorado River Valley from Glenwood Springs west to DeBeque Canyon.””The little town of New Castle is contemplating an annexation and planned-unit development for 6,000 people. Across the Colorado from Parachute, the first residents of a community currently called Battlement Mesa are expected to move in soon. They will be the forerunners of an anticipated influx of 20,000 people. At Telluride, plans are being pushed for a ski-area development to provide housing for 7,300 people.””Hundreds if not thousands of smaller developments and subdivisions are on the books in town and county government offices.””Much of the growth is being fueled by the oncoming expansion of the synthetic fuels industry based on coal and shale oil.””Shale-oil production, like a voyage to the moon, is no longer simply a dream. Exxon, Occidental, Tenneco, Standard, Gulf, Union and a dozen more big oil companies are beyond the talking and planning stages; they are beginning to build.””A University of Colorado professor predicts the coal-mining industry in western Colorado has seen its last boom-and-bust cycle. He expects coal production to quadruple in a few years and to stay at that level for a century of more, until the mines are exhausted.”Many more projects are listed as being for sure certain. He mentions uranium projects near Gunnison and western Montrose County; Amax developing Mt. Emmons in Crested Butte; major water storage projects; and dams on the Yampa, west of Craig, and the Delores and Uncompaghre rivers. Also, the expansion of Walker Airport in Grand Junction and improvements to the Delta and Montrose fields, four new high schools to be built in Paonia, Hotchkiss, Delta, and Cedaredge, $23 million bond issues to expand elementary and middle schools, salinity control on the Colorado River and its tributaries which would affect thousands of homeowners.Mr. Tweedle’s closing sentence: “Even so, we should keep in mind the French saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”What happened to the boom is best answered by looking at synthetic oil costs, vs. crude oil costs. As projected pricing of shale oil began dropping from the $20 to $30 range to the high teens per barrel, OPEC wisely dropped their projected price back to about $12 for the indefinite future, thus halting a several billion dollar development of oil shale mining and refining, as well as coal mine development and a fivefold multiplication of train trackage.One of the huge problems with the shale oil project was getting rid of the spent shale, which in some of the processes had expanded in volume by one third, creating a major cost to the producers. The in-place heating and retorting of the oil eliminated the costly spent shale handling and re-vegetation. Dropping the price nearly in half caused the Arabs to reconsider their projected $25 cost, which ended the entire energy boom.The first purpose of explaining the initiated projects of just 30 years ago is to give the reader the relative scope of the economic bust of the late seventies and early ”80s, when bankruptcies and foreclosures took many family homesteads and investors’ money.The second purpose is to repeat his statements about Eagle County development. The main worry of the planners was there was not enough available real estate to build on.There was not even a dream of the luxury of having “open space.”So now, with 20/20 hindsight, we see that only the part about the Eagle River Valley came true. The true value of the Bair Ranch as open space can now be seen in view of our history of accurately predicting just as few as 30 years ago. The premium that would have been placed on the land and water rights would be tens of times the $5.3 million cost of the easement that was the final price.Of the billions of dollars invested and lost in a 10-year period, the current investment seems pretty miniscule.Steve ZorichakVail


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