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Tracing a Century of Shale Oil Ebb and Flow

BOOMTOWN BLUES: COLORADO OIL SHALE, 1885-1985 by Andrew Gulliford, Niwot, Colo.: University of Colorado Press, 302 pp., $19.95 IT was only a decade ago, but it's sometimes hard to recall how concerned people used to be about energy. I recall a flight to Vienna in the late '70s, when a hefty gentleman next to me, who happened to be a vacationing farmer from Kent, England, turned and asked, ``What do you think about shale oil?''

He'd heard about the fabulous reserves of petroleum locked in the gritty cliffs of western Colorado. When were the Americans, renowned for their enterprise, going to do anything about it?

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In 1980 that Englishman and thousands of others got their answer. The oil titans, led by the biggest of all, Exxon, plunged their billions into exploiting that long-recognized but strangely elusive resource. In August 1980, Exxon issued a ``white paper,'' laying out plans to put $5 billion into the Colony shale project near Parachute, Colo., with the goal of producing 50,000 barrels of oil per day by 1985 and 8 million per day by the turn of the century.

Exxon decided to build a whole new town atop Battlement Mesa across the river from Parachute. Thousands of construction jobs were created. Land values climbed out of sight.

In ``Boomtown Blues,'' Andrew Gulliford pulls together a wealth of facts and details to illustrate the rate of growth: for example, how building permits in the tiny town of Rifle, Colo., went from a total of $500,000 in 1976 to $14 million in 1980.

It was a boom that wiley investors had anticipated for years. Little towns in Garfield County, Colo., found their populations exploding from a few hundred to a few thousand. People from all parts of the country, many of them jobless factory workers from the Midwest, headed for Colorado's outback.

Gulliford has interviewed widely, letting the people who lived through the boom tell their own story. The boom ended just as quickly as it began. On May 2, 1982, a Sunday, Exxon announced it was closing its Colony project. Thousands were just as instantly out of work. The shock rippled throughout Colorado, causing a wave of business failures and foreclosures that eventually reached all the way to Texas's huge oil patch.

Gulliford approaches this highly dramatic subject as a scholar consumed by his research. The book gives much more than a detailed snapshot of two years of boom and bust. It lays out a panorama of how the shale oil frenzy ebbed and flowed over the course of a century. Gulliford's work is rich in sociological sketches of people who made Garfield County the pleasant rural backwater it was for decades - and may never be again.

Gulliford's style tends a little toward the dry and academic at times. But the book is like a drama that builds to its denoument. The author drops plenty of hints of what's in store.

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As the drama unfolds, you feel for the simple countryfolk whose lives are knocked out of accustomed ruts, and for the newcomers whose dreams of long-term prosperity evaporate. You even feel a twinge of sympathy for the corporate behemoth that got caught up in the energy mania of the time and felt it had to be out front on the newest frontier of exploration.

Exxon did a great job of building new housing and infrastructures - which the once-again small communities are hard put to operate. But it did nothing to shield those communities against bust times to come.

Perhaps the central irony in this highly ironic tale is that Exxon never got a single barrel of oil for all its investment. The remarkable fact is that oil men still don't know how to economically extract petroleum from ``the rock that burns.'' For all the rush to shale, no one really knew how to make it work.

Which means, of course, that the potential 500 billion barrels of crude are still locked in Colorado's hills, awaiting the next boom. Only next time, the local officials and landowners will be ready - particularly if they've read ``Boomtown Blues.''

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