Boom and bust in Parachute

December 12, 2014

Parachute, Colorado
By Jim Urquhart

“I don’t know how you can weather this if you can’t roll.”

Much of the history of the American West is based on stories of booms and the almost inevitable bust that follows. The land is dotted with decaying remnants of towns that once seemed to be drenched in fortune but then strangled by the drought of bust.

Then there is Parachute, Colorado, on the western slope of the Rocky 
Mountains east of Grand Junction. Founded in the 1900s, Parachute was the site of one of the most devastating and quickest busts ever seen.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

On May 2, 1982, Exxon pulled the plug on the Colony Shale Oil Project, since remembered as in town as “Black Sunday.” 
Exxon had been ramping up to begin retrieving shale oil from the mesa north of town, but when market conditions in oil began to fall, they
 pulled out. Overnight, thousands of workers lost their jobs, and as many 
as 15,000 people soon left the region – maybe more.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

But the town of Parachute was still left and even endured the loss as the construction of Interstate 70 bulldozed its way
 through soon after.
 Exploration of the area’s resources had begun well before “Black
 Sunday.” Newspapers from the ’60s include front-page stories about
 other companies looking to exploit the reserves of shale oil.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

And 
natural gas has long played a role. In 1969, a 40-kiloton nuclear
 device was exploded underground as part of Project Rulison, to 
free natural gas from the rock south of town. The frack proved successful
 in releasing the gas, but it was found to be radioactive.

The surface ground zero site of a 40-kiloton nuclear device used for a fracking test in the 1960s.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Since “Black Sunday”, about 1,000 residents now call the town of 
Parachute proper home. Natural gas brought yet another boom to the
 area beginning in the ’90s, but it, too, was not insulated from market 
conditions. When prices fell in 2008, the town saw yet another
 decline, yet not as harsh as the termination of the Colony Shale Oil
 Project. Today, natural gas is a major economic driver for the town, 
with companies like Encana and WPX Energy pumping the thousands of 
wells in the area or actively hydraulic fracking new wells to release
 the gas below.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The town is led by Mayor Roy McClung, who makes his living in the oil industry. His family has been here for several generations and has seen the feast and famine firsthand. Along with previous members of the town council, they have stashed away about two years of budget to continue offering services in the event that another crash befalls them.

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Part of his initiative is to look for ways to bring more economic
 diversity to the area. At one point, the town explored bringing
 gambling in to spur growth. Sales tax being the primary source of the town’s funds, 
economic studies are in the works to bring more investment into the
 community. He would like to bring in services like a grocery store
, since current residents have to trek to either Rifle or Grand Junction 
for a full load of groceries. “I have dreams … just have to figure 
out how to pay for them.”

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

And much like the mayor, there are people like Diana Lawrence who graduated high school in the town and invests in it when she can. She, along with a business partner, runs Mama’s Restaurant on the 
town’s 1st Street. The building, that was once a bank and later a bar,
 now serves hot meals to the locals and provides catered meals to the
 crews on drilling rigs. She also believes that the diverse
 professions of those in town has allowed it to weather economic 
storms. “We learned from it, and we grew from it.”

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

The town people have a long history of independence. Judy Beasley came in 1967 with her now late husband Joseph “David” Beasley.
 Being a school teacher, she was hired on the spot. Later, she and her husband
 both served as mayor and ran a gift shop for 30
 years.

Judy Beasley looks at a photo of her late husband.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Her home is now within earshot of an active natural gas
-drilling rig, and along a wall inside are all the awards the two
 gathered in their service to the town.
 She noted it was painful to watch friends move from the area as 
the markets fluctuated. She likens it to watching family members move
 away. However, she is optimistic for the town’s future and believes 
economic diversity will be its key to longevity. “I don’t know how you
 can weather this if you can’t roll,” she said with a smile.

The entrance to the Shale Manor mobile home park.  REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

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