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How Big Oil Seduced and Dumped This Utah Town

Every new oil and gas boom comes with an elaborate courtship ritual aimed at winning the hearts of local people. But like so many affairs, this one may come to a rocky end.

| Tue Mar. 19, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Vernal, Utah

This story was originally published by OnEarth magazine.

I greet you from the land of the giant white trucks. I sit here, typing away, barricaded behind the door of the last available hotel room—the smell of smoke oozing from every fiber of polyester bedspread and carpet of this non-smoking room—in Vernal, Utah. Outside on the crowded streets hundreds of Rams and Rangers and Silverados prowl, most displaying Texas and Wyoming and Oklahoma plates.

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.

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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—cosponsored 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.

The building is not a gift outright but the metaphoric equivalent of Big Oil saying, "Here, honey, go buy yourself something nice."

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."

On that first day back in July, I drove from the rec center to Main Street, rejoining the white truck parade past classic strip malls and an abundance of hotels. (The Holiday Inn, many locals would tell me, was rented out for a year in advance by Halliburton—before it was even completed.) At the chamber of commerce, when I mentioned concerns about the environmental consequences of the boom, a young woman named Misty smiled at me from behind the counter and said: "It's an oil field town and everyone makes money from the oil field. Treehuggers should go somewhere else." From there I climbed back in my car and was drawn like a magnet to a big sign that said: I ❤ Drilling! It pointed toward a small shop called Covers & Camo that made custom seat covers and was bedecked with stickers and filled with souvenirs, all professing love for the pursuit of gas and oil. Inside, wearing a big straw hat and a T-shirt sporting the same words that adorned the sign outside, was George Burnett, the affable, slightly manic owner. I was surprised to learn that his business really had nothing to do with drilling.

George had opened his first shop, Mr. Trim Seat Covers, back in Provo, Utah, 25 years before. But then the economy started to crater and no one could afford a truck, let alone covers for the seats of a truck. A friend told him about Vernal, where the latest oil and gas boom would mean not just plenty of trucks but truck owners with money to spend. Business was slow at first, but then George found his gimmick: I ❤ Drilling! He put up his signs, made his T-shirts, and suddenly was the talk of the town, all the drivers honking their horns as they passed his shop. Only a few gave him what he called "the single-finger salute."

George pointed to his pride and joy: an old black-and-white photo he'd had blown up and made into a poster. It showed three women in hard hats and one-piece bathing suits riding on a truck bed that featured an undeniably phallic 10-foot-tall wooden oil derrick with black papier-maché oil gushing out of its top. The photo was of the 1953 Oil Progress Parade down Main Street, an event that George had exactly recreated the previous summer, right down to the derrick, the one-pieces, and the vintage truck. At the top of the list of funders was Halliburton.

In the Brew Haus

For all Vernal's riches, there is some fear that boom is becoming bust, with oil prices falling and natural gas abundant. If so, it won't be the first time. Since its initial boom, in 1948, Vernal has been riding these waves up and down, the boom of the early 1980s crashing hard and then rising again only to crash in the early 2000s. During these dark times, no matter how hard the town ❤ed oil, oil didn't ❤ them back. If a lesson was to be learned, it would seem to be one of caution, but as soon as oil returned, the town threw itself back into the industry's big arms. That was the George W. Bush boom, which included a last-minute gift of almost 3,000 more permits. This turned into the Obama boom, which continues to this moment. But for all the bunting and cheers, some people are wary. Did oil really ❤ them? They had been burned before.

From George's Covers & Camo to the Dinosaur Brew Haus is less than a 50-yard walk, and I learned there that not everyone in Vernal is as gung ho about oil as George Burnett. The place was bustling as I jockeyed my way through the crowd. My working method as a writer over the past few years has boiled down to the first line of a joke: A man walks into a bar. I've found drinking with the locals to be a good way to take a town's temperature, and, sure enough, before I'd had two sips of beer, I was listening to a tall, bearded man describe the joys of fracking.

"What the eco-types will tell you is that it contaminates the water," he yelled over the din. "But if you know anything at all about it, you know that the water's here. And the gas is here." He held one hand down low and another above to illustrate.

I listened to him for a while, not voicing my doubts, until he got bored with proselytizing and moved on. Almost immediately I found myself talking to the next guy down the bar, who turned out to be a geologist. Though he, too, worked in the oil fields, he was skeptical when I told him the theory I'd just heard.

"That's great," he said. "But just ask that guy one question. What happens if there is an earthquake?" He didn't seem to be actually predicting one as much as tweaking those who spoke with the fervor of certainty.

After a while the crowd thinned out, and I took a seat near the wall, scribbling notes on napkins. Above me was a picture of a rugged man, gray at the temples, obviously a river guide, in a scene of craggy rock and white water. Eavesdropping on the table next to me, I learned that there were still people who had been drawn to Vernal not for oil but for water. Most of the party were river guides, and when I asked about the photo, one of them told me it was a legendary local riverman, Don Hatch, whose son John, exemplifying the town's strange mix, had gone into the oil business. Misty at the chamber of commerce had said that treehuggers should get out of town, but here was a table full of them, mixing with the roughnecks.

"Nobody graduates from high school in Vernal anymore," said Jeff Hommel, one of the guides. "They think they don't need to since they can make $70,000 to $80,000 out in the oil fields."

"Nobody graduates from high school in Vernal anymore," said Jeff Hommel, one of the guides. "They think they don't need to since they can make $70,000 to $80,000 out in the oil fields."

Looking at my napkins from the night, I find one name scribbled several times: Herm Hoops. I was told that he was an old-time river rat who, unlike most, was frank about what oil had done to the town. "He spoke out at the last town meeting," one napkin says. And after that, barely legible: "People wanted to kill him."

One Man's Town

I wasn't able to track down Herm Hoops on that first trip to Vernal, which is one of the reasons I've come back. Returning, my first stop was the Dinosaur Brew Haus, where I met a man named Rich, who works out on the oil fields. He contained in one person the odd mix of oil and water I'd noticed on my last visit. An ATV instructor, kayaker, scuba diver, and former ski patrol emergency medical technician, he'd moved west seven years before from upstate New York in search of adventure and opportunity in the booming oil fields, just as earlier adventurous easterners had been drawn westward to search for gold, beaver, silver, uranium, you name it. Rich now spent his days driving from drill site to drill site, where his perfectly metaphorical job was to separate oil from water in the condensate tanks next to the wellheads.

"Some days I don't see a single person," he said. "It's dangerous. When the weather's bad that red dirt turns to snot. We had five water tankers roll over last year. But it's by far the best money I ever made in my life."

In his late 40s, Rich is older than the standard caricature of the oil field worker. He likes Vernal, lives near the rec center, but prefers to get his exercise by exploring the surrounding canyons, lakes, and arches by foot, ATV, and dirt bike. When I told him I had never been on an ATV, he asked if I wanted to go for a ride the next morning, and I, to my own surprise, said yes.

Which is how I ended up trying to tame a wild ATV. Rich said that the shifting and driving were simple, and I'm sure they were to him. But I managed to fall off after only about 100 yards, accelerating when I meant to brake, and then the willful machine decided to run over my leg. It was not, as I first suspected, broken, and I made it a good half hour before falling off again, diving for safety as the ATV turned over.

"You performed a textbook roll," Rich said. It was the single compliment he would pay me over the course of the ride.

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