Offering Tough Love to Boomtown Newcomers

    This is not the first time that energy development has blitzed the Rockies. In the euphoria, we’ve forgotten certain fundamentals of the energy economy. This is a three-part examination of those fundamentals, and how to deal with them. Part one can be found found here and part two   here.What we want from oil and gas development – or, come to that, any economic growth, why pick on oil and gas? – is a nicer place to live.

    I don’t have any hard data on the subject, but presumably the people of Rifle and DeBeque and Parachute and Rangely and Meeker like the towns they live in, and want to retain their character. So they must take control of their future, without waiting for the state to airdrop severance tax money on them. Local governments must assert their authority.

    The first thing to do is make the new people welcome.

    In the mid-1980s, I had a conversation with a Wyoming mover-and-shaker, an oil company geologist who was a leader in the state’s Republican party. I offered the opinion that Wyoming didn’t want the oilfield workers to stick around. They were welcome to come and do their jobs, then leave. It was, I asserted, unofficial state policy to see that this occurred. Then-Gov. Ed Herschler said it in vague ways when he called it “development on Wyoming’s terms.”  To my surprise, the geologist agreed with me. Essentially, the state didn’t want oilfield trash leaning against the local lampposts, giving the neighborhood a bad name.

    I asked former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan about this, too. He said, “I wouldn’t say I had that impression to the degree that you do.” But he also said, “Some of the comments that Herschler made were, `Just get your job done and go.’ It probably was related a bit to the fact that we had never had a real long-lasting boom because the price of oil was always so volatile.”

    But the way to greet the new people is not with the Welcome Wagon and a sixpack. What makes for good communities is a committed citizenry, people invested in a town’s future well-being. So these transient workers must be converted into genuine citizens.

    When an energy boom first hits, the waves of new workers are usually put in man camps, dormitories, trailer parks and other tornado-prone housing. This is probably unavoidable. But the local policy goal should be to integrate them quickly into the community. Local governments should set up strict land use regulations and enforce them ruthlessly. Get them out of the temporary accommodations and into real houses. By incentives if possible, or by requiring it if all else fails.

    This isn’t only because stick-built houses make for a nicer-looking place. People who have bought a house have invested in the town. It’s not a boomtown to them any more, it’s their home. And they’ve taken the first steps toward helping to make it a nice place to live. When the bust hits – remember, there’s always a bust – they will make more effort to protect those investments, starting small businesses, diversifying the economy.

    These same land use rules should be used to maintain the current character of the town, setting aside open space, for instance, or preserving historic districts. Then do the things that make life in town interesting: build a rec center, some softball fields, soccer fields; promote the arts; protect the local wildlife.

    Some of this stuff costs money. It may be necessary to utter the magical incantation “new taxes,” which will bring on the imprecations of the Witches of Bruce. Pay them no heed. Not only are you backed by tough, T-shirted oilfield trash with packs of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve, they’re now good citizens who understand the need to invest to protect their futures.

    The oil companies may be willing to help with some of these issues, if they’re asked nicely. Bart Rea, a Casper, Wyo., geologist and long-time environmental activist, says, “The sooner everybody starts talking to each other, the easier it’s going to be on everybody. If you wait until everybody’s in a confrontational mood, it’s real hard to talk to each other.”

    One possible difference between the current energy boom and past ones, Rea says, is “some of the oil companies have grown up a little bit, and they know they will have to live with some rules. I’m not sure the environmental community has grown up … The oil industry’s a lot more responsible than it used to be. And a lot of the irresponsible ones have fallen by the wayside.”

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    Some restrictions are going to be necessary, especially on drilling. A friend of mine who still lives in Wyoming and is heavily involved in environmental causes says, “Every government official should be required to fly over the Jonah Field before they make any decisions on these issues.” The Jonah Field is Wyoming’s most industrialized natural gas field.

    So … the secrets to success in dealing with this boomtown thing: Talk to each other; welcome your new neighbors with tough love; create good citizens; know what you like about your town and invest to protect it; don’t count on the state government for money; and be looking over your shoulder for the coming bust.

    That’s not so hard, is it?

    Jonah Gas Field, Wyoming. Credit: Larry Swanson/LightHawk.

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