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Learning to love big oil

Don’t criticize me for posting this, I am from Alberta after all. 

The drivers of the trucks are here for the same reason I am: the boom in drilling for oil and natural gas. The vast, dry lands south of Vernal hold about half of the state’s active rigs and present a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for energy extraction: shale aplenty, fracking for both oil and natural gas, and even the state’s very own poised-to-open tar sands. Uintah County has been Utah’s main oil producer for more than 70 years. As far back as 1918, National Geographic extolled the area’s potential: “Campers and hunters in building fires against pieces of the rock had been surprised to find that they ignited, that they contain oil.” In other words, what is happening here is no nouveau drilling dalliance, no young sweetheart in first flush, freshly wooed, like the Bakken Field in North Dakota, but an on-again, off-again affair that has been going on for decades.

It is that affair that interests me, with all the salacious details of how Big Oil sidles up to a town, flirts with it, and wins it over. Not to mention what happens if — or, more accurately, when — the wooer decides to ditch the wooed.

In Vernal, population 9,000, evidence of earlier wooing abounds. A quick ride around town reveals Big Oil’s equivalent of a dozen roses or a box of candy. There are shiny new schools and municipal buildings and ballparks. The Western Park Convention Center, covering 32 acres, is one of the largest buildings of its kind in the West. Not every town hosts a golf tournament called Petroleum Days or throws a music festival — like last summer’s weekend-long Country Explosion — co-sponsored by a maker of centrifuges and mud/gas separators. Then there’s the Uintah Basin Applied Technology College, a beautiful sandstone building with the streamlined look of a brand-new upscale airport.

On my first visit to Vernal, in the heat of July, I peeked in on a class called Well Control, where a movie was being shown that, unlike the grainy safety films of my youth, had the production values of a Spielberg movie. There were models of oil derricks in the lobby, with the name Anadarko, the giant Texas oil company that is one of the area’s main employers, prominently displayed. In this case, Anadarko’s particular bouquet was a $1.5 million gift for construction and faculty endowment.

It was a short drive over to the rec center, a looming spectacle of oaken beams and concrete and great sheets of glass that revealed within Olympic-size pools and running tracks and climbing walls and squash courts. It looked as if Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Shorter had gotten together to build their dream house. This building points to one of the less obvious ways the town has been wooed. While Anadarko alone paid $14 million in county property taxes last year, the total income for Vernal and Uintah County from oil and gas far exceeds this number, as a result of sales tax, production taxes, mining royalties, and lease payments on federal land. In other words, the building is not a gift outright but the metaphoric equivalent of Big Oil saying, “Here, honey, go buy yourself something nice.”

It starts out well

“When I first came here in the seventies, it was a beautiful place,” Herm said. “A lazy Main Street lined with cottonwoods. The old booms had faded, and the two top businesses in town were agriculture and tourism. People came to see the dinosaur quarry at the park. People came to float on the river.”

He held out his large hands, palms up. “And what are we left with now?”

Certainly not tourism. A tourist would be hard pressed to find a hotel room in Vernal. In fact, while oil jobs and the services that support them have been rising, the numbers of people employed in agriculture and recreation have fallen dramatically.

And then there were the busts. Herm remembers the last one. Storage lockers of people’s possessions being auctioned off. Houses foreclosed. He is not against drilling, he told me, but what is lacking is perspective and long-term thinking. The problem is exemplified by the archetypal Vernal high school student who drops out, lured by the chance to make money working in the oil fields, and buys a house, a big truck, some ATVs.

“What happens if that job goes away?” Herm asked. “He is left with no education, many debts.” In fact, at the public meeting where Herm questioned the oil orthodoxy, a boy just like that stood up and said, “If we don’t keep drilling, how will I pay for everything?”

Herm wasn’t trying to drive oil out of town. He was merely suggesting that Vernal proceed with some restraint and consider investing in the future. For that he was greeted with fury, even death threats.

Over the past 40 years Herm had seen Big Oil bring its gifts, and its gifts were shiny. But he had also seen oil and chemicals foaming and floating down the Green River. He had seen rising crime, prostitution, spousal abuse, and a culture defined by the twentysomething males who come to work the oil fields. (Utah has a higher incidence of rape than the national average, and Vernal has a much higher rate than the state as a whole.) Air quality has dramatically worsened; last winter’s ozone levels in the county rivaled those of Los Angeles.

All this has made Herm a little less giddy than most about Vernal’s prospects.

“I’ve been through it before,” he said. “They come into your neighborhood. They change your neighborhood. Then they move away. And we’re left to pick up the pieces and pay the bills.”

The party does always end but it’s going to be going on for a while, even in towns like Vernal.  Yet even in Alberta, the party may not end, it may be occasionally interrupted. 

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