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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 Brian Finke

The more I got to know Rich, the more I liked him. Earlier we had hiked up to see Moonshine Arch, and I noted that he, unlike me, did so rapidly and without a single gasp for air. He was a fit, adventurous single man, and I could understand the appeal of heading out to the oil fields to cash in for a while, the way my friends went to Alaska to fish when we were in our 20s. As for the ATVs, Rich again subverted the caricature. Safety-conscious, he outfitted us in helmets and chest pads. We didn't drink anything stronger than water, and when we stopped he would say, "Isn't it great to be out here in such a beautiful place?"

If you ask current residents what exactly Big Oil has given them, the answer is usually jobs. And it's true: jobs have been gained, hundreds of them, and Uintah County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state at 3.9 percent. But most of these jobs are for transient outsiders. Jobs in services, oil and gas mining, and government have all increased dramatically in the past 10 years, but only mining and government pay better than the national average; service wages lag far behind.

For Rich, however, it was a good deal all around. He considered himself a nature lover—"being out in it" was one reason he gave for loving the job. The larger repercussions of what he was doing didn't concern him. He was simply there to do a job, cash in, get out. What was the big deal?

Herm Hoops, when I finally got to see him later that afternoon, had an answer to that question. After saying good-bye to Rich, I drove out east of Vernal, past a life-size pink dinosaur, to Herm's house. A big man with a thick beard and an easy manner, he greeted me in his driveway wearing just shorts and a T-shirt despite the afternoon chill.

Part of the big deal, Herm explained, is that by doing his job, Rich makes it hard for others, like Herm, a river rafter, to do theirs.

"They say oil is good for business. Not for my business."

"When I take people down to raft Desolation Canyon, the single thing they talk about now is the number of oil wells they see. That's not what they paid for. They paid to get away from it all. Not be in the thick of it. They say oil is good for business. Not for my business."

We sat in Herm's living room, a cozy place with a lit Christmas tree, a glass case featuring Civil War figurines, two kittens that crawled all over me, and a fine view of the sun's late red glow on Split Mountain in Dinosaur National Monument.

"When I first came here in the '70s, 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.

"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."

"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."

As I drove back into town I brooded. I had tried to keep an open mind about the relationship between Big Oil and Vernal, and I couldn't deny the many obvious benefits that oil money has brought. I've even felt at moments, when talking to Rich or George or amid the bustle of the Brew Haus, that there is really nothing wrong with riding a wave, with accepting "reality." Why be a spoiler at the party?

Maybe because the party always ends.

From Above

I've brought a book along on my second trip to Vernal, The Western Paradox, by the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Bernard DeVoto. Its pages bristle with energy; it insists on being read. DeVoto was an intellectual descendant of Major John Wesley Powell, the famous geologist who, in 1869, became the first European to float down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Both Powell and DeVoto were forerunners of thinkers such as Wallace Stegner, who wrote a brilliant biography of Powell, and Marc Reisner, whose Cadillac Desert tells the dark story of water manipulation in the arid West. Together these writers have created a counter-narrative of the region. DeVoto was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, but the enemies he faced might as easily have been from the 1850s or from today. Those enemies said that the land was vast, and that taking what that vast land had to offer was a westerner's birthright. That was and remains a hard argument to fight against.

DeVoto didn't care if it was hard. He had watched too many places be cored out. Too many places where the citizenry was seduced by the dream of riches, only to be left empty in the end. Locals might convince themselves that it was a mutual commitment. We ❤ each other. But despite the companies' promises, there was never any true commitment to the places they were emptying of fuels or minerals.

DeVoto asked a simple question: Can you show me a single time when a company didn't leave after taking all it wanted or needed?

Here in five words is his summary of the extractive industries: "All mining exhausts the deposit."

Those words are as relevant in 2013 as they were in 1947. But while I admire DeVoto's sweep and scope, I usually admire it from afar. When the man I am walks into a bar and talks to people, he understands why those people do what they do. They want money for schools, money for big white trucks, money for themselves and their kids. They want petroleum golf tournaments and fancy rec centers. Like most of us, they see things in the short term.

But there are times when the big picture is hard to avoid, and in Vernal I had a rare opportunity. I got to gaze down at the town from far above in a small plane piloted by Bruce Gordon of EcoFlight, a nonprofit organization that sponsors flights over the western landscape. It was a startling experience: what was theoretical became actual. These were the places, these were the fields where the white trucks went during the day before coming back to rest at night in front of all those hotel rooms.

"Most people driving through just see a few sites from the road and have no idea," Bruce said. "But from up here you can see the extent of it."

We are fooled by the land's vastness; we can't believe it can be ruined. But this is a failure of the imagination. Scar this dry landscape, and the scars remain.

Not 10 minutes outside of Vernal the land quickly rose and grew wilder, with the Green River—Powell's river and Herm's—carving beautiful and snakelike through a sere landscape of purple and yellow. All that great, empty, unpeopled space, still looking like, as Wallace Stegner called it, "the geography of hope."

But on second glance you saw the straight, squared lines that didn't quite fit in nature, the rectangles that turned out to be the hundreds of drilling pads and evaporation ponds that dotted the area. The land was scarred; in places it looked as if someone had taken a knife to a beautiful woman's face.

With me in the small plane were two staff members of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Ray Bloxham and Steve Bloch. "They used to say that the vegetation would eventually reclaim the sites," Steve said through the headset. "But scientists no longer think so. Not enough water for the vegetation to regrow."

As the flight continued, down to the Book Cliffs and Desolation Canyon, we saw hundreds more rectangles. Rectangles up in the high, forested mountains where black bear roam in the greatest concentration in the state. Rectangles near the Sand Wash, where rafters who put in to retrace Powell's journey were now serenaded by an industrial hum. Rectangles near the unique Fremont defensive armaments on rock spires by the river, and rectangles near the largest known Ute petroglyph panel in upper Desolation Canyon.

To get from rectangle to rectangle, the giant white trucks needed roads. So what had once been roadless wilderness was now a spiderweb. These were the roads that my new friend Rich spent his days driving, and they were everywhere. One of them, Seep Ridge Road, will lead to the new tar sands right at the foot of the beautiful and previously isolated Book Cliffs. This particular road will be 49 miles long and paved, the land scraped 100 feet wide to provide for a 55-mile-an-hour, two-lane highway.

The geography of hopelessness. I scribbled those words in my journal. I thought of how Stegner and DeVoto knew that water was the most precious resource of all, and how below me the Green and the White rivers ran through what had been raw wilderness and was now industrial hive.

I asked Steve who owned the land we had looked down at. It was mostly public land, he said, some administered by the Bureau of Land Management and some by the US Forest Service. In other words,we own this land. It belongs to all of us; it's our American land, our heritage.

You would be wise not to make that case too loudly in Vernal. I wouldn't want to walk out on my hotel balcony and announce that this land is my land, public land that the oil companies are coring out for profit. "Your land?" most people in Vernal would respond incredulously.

It's our land, they would counter. Our birthright. And, they might add, if we want to trade our birthright for a climbing wall or a fancy petroleum college, then we damn well will.

It is an argument that is hard to counter. And I have no doubt it will ring out here forever. Or at least until the wooing is over, and Vernal, along with its oil and gas, lies exhausted.

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