From the governor to families, oil shale bust spared few people
GRAND JUNCTION – Black Sunday’s first casualty was family time.Sunday mornings once were off limits at the governor’s mansion to the day-to-day realities of running the State of Colorado – “we weren’t to be bothered unless for emergencies,” former Gov. Richard Lamm said.It was May 2, 1982.A Colorado State Trooper on duty that morning at the mansion pulled Lamm away from son Scott, and daughter Heather.”‘I’ve got the president of Exxon on the phone,” Lamm was told.Just four years earlier, the company was “telling me to get Colorado ready for a half million people in Northwest Colorado. A year later they were saying 700,000 to 800,000 people, plus related services (workers).”That was then.On the Sunday the governor received the call, the world’s largest energy firm announced plans to yank its multi-billion-dollar designs for oil shale development in Western Colorado, leaving thousands jobless.”He was very polite, appropriately sorry in explaining that terms had turned against oil shale and the economy wouldn’t allow them to continue,” Lamm said of May 2, 1982, phone conversation with Exxon’s head. “So much of history is made by polite conversation that covers up the magnitude of what’s happening.””My immediate reaction was shock … incredulous … particularly with all the help (subsidies) they were getting from the feds that they were going to abandon.””At the time, I thought, ‘thank God we didn’t allow them to talk us into building a bunch of infrastructure for the population.'” “Without minimizing trauma of some places, there wasn’t nearly the magnitude of depth hanging over Colorado when an industry like that just picks up and walks away.”Twenty-five years later, Lamm urged government to be wary “of what lessons it chooses to learn” from shale’s bust.”I’m just glad we didn’t have a continuing impact for 30 years into the future as we’re paying off bonds for unneeded infrastructure.”
Sally Schaefer counts her family among “the lucky ones who made it,” in Grand Junction.Schaefer and her husband, Greg, with the couple’s four grade-school age children, arrived in the valley in 1981. They invested what they had in real estate.Within six months, they’d lost it all.Foreclosures quadrupled and bankruptcies doubled in Mesa County within a year of Black Sunday – Schaefer remembers numerous friends whose marriages collapsed.”You either get broken apart or appreciate each other more,” Sally Schaefer said.”Depression, despair … you could feel the hopelessness,” she said. “You were in very good company to be broke.”Schaefer recalls drives westbound on Interstate 70 approaching Grand Junction – alone.All the traffic was going east, as one of several bumper stickers that popped up around the time asked something like, “will the last person down the freeway, please turn off the lights.””We (as a community) wandered around in that space for a couple of years,” Schaefer said. “I think it took about three years as a valley to crawl out of the gloom and start figuring out how to get back.””But two marvelous things happened: I went back to work full time and the kids all went on to put themselves through college because we couldn’t afford to help them.Schaefer, now chief executive officer with Hilltop Community Resources, wonders if some scars never healed from May 2, 1982.”Now, there’s almost an expectation by some for (energy industry) coming back to do business … that they owe us something,” she said. “But it was about business, it changes, and will change again.”
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