Oil Shale, Part II: In 1980 Exxon Rocked

Occidental Petroleum, Unocal, Tenneco, Rio Blanco Oil Shale-were all corporate names in the oil shale business back in 1980 in northwestern Colorado. But there was no name bigger than this one: EXXON.

Grand Valley, now known as Parachute, in particular was an Exxon company town. Exxon’s oil shale plant was just north of town and south, it had completed the first contruction stage of a large county subdivision called “Battlement Mesa” for its then 2,000+ workers. Locals and employees–and Exxon itself– thought Exxon was going to stay forever.Oil shale companies were required to produce many documents such as an Economic-socio Impact Study (EIS) as part of the federal leasing requirements. One day in June 1980, an Exxon executive went one step beyond an EIS.

In a speech before the American Mining Congress and assuming he was under the media radar, the Exxon official described the future of oil shale in western Colorado. He predicted that the industry would increase growth to 1.75 million people between Mesa, Garfield, Moffat and Rio Blanco Counties by 2010 (the 1980 population of the area was 115,000). There would be 660,000 people between Rifle and DeBeque alone. Water needs would be so great that oil shale companies would have to pipe water from the Missouri River Basin in South Dakota.

If allowed to surface mine oil shale for its retort process, which had not been fully developed yet, Exxon projected it would invest $500 billion dollars to reach a target of one million barrels (bbl) of oil from oil shale per day. They would employ 22,000 miners and 8,000 processing workers for each of the proposed six open pit mines that individually would stretch over three miles long.

There was a lot of explaining to do after the LA Times published these comments and many an Exxon public relations team spent the rest of the year softening that position. Yet, the facts were out there: oil shale was going to have a colossal effect in the region and no one had prepared for it.

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Leslie Robinson

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