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Tracking Energy Booms, Busts and the Rise of the ‘Fracking’ Debate

BY Tom Bearden  June 15, 2011 at 4:15 PM EDT

More than 30 years ago, I stood at the edge of a cliff and looked out into the broad valley of the Colorado River some 3,000 feet below as it flowed through Garfield County, Colo. There wasn’t much to see in the 15 miles or so between the towns of Rifle and Parachute — mostly grazing land and small ranches.

I was there to do a series of stories for the Denver television station where I worked at the time. The area appeared to be poised on the brink of a huge energy boom. The shale beneath my feet contained oil, and the government was encouraging companies to find a way to get it into people’s gas tanks.

In the years that followed, the oil giants set up various demonstration projects, hired a lot of people, and spent millions trying to figure out the how to get the oil out of the rock. Internationally, oil prices were rising, and shale oil looked like it would be economically viable, despite the high costs of producing it. New subdivisions sprang up so workers would have places to live, and local economies boomed. The future looked very bright — at least for the people in the oil business.

Needless to say, the people who lived on the ranches weren’t very happy with the traffic and the dust it stirred up, and a lot of people were worried about the potential environmental devastation that might result.

The shale boom burst just a few short years later, when Exxon shut down the Colony Oil Shale Project in 1982. Workers left by the thousands. The new subdivisions sat empty. The global price of oil had fallen, and there wasn’t any money to be made from oil shale.

Earlier this month I was back in that valley to report on yet another energy boom. This time, it’s natural gas. Hundreds of producing gas wells stretch for miles along Interstate 70, and even more are hidden in the adjacent hills. The local economy is humming along in ways it hasn’t seen since the early 1980s.

It was difficult and expensive to get oil out of shale, and it’s also difficult and expensive to get natural gas out of the deep Marcellus shale deposits that lie beneath the county. Companies like Encana, one of the largest natural gas producers in North America, use a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to free the gas from the rock. It involves drilling multiple bores thousands of feet deep, and then injecting a fluid into the shale formation at extremely high pressure. It forces the rocks to crack, and opens a pathway for natural gas to flow to the surface.

But now some people in Garfield County believe that the gas wells and fracking have polluted their drinking water and that it’s making them sick. People in the rest of the country are starting to take notice, because Marcellus shale deposits have been found underneath much of the nation, and gas companies are starting to drill and frack in Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio.

That’s the subject of the report that Producer Mary Jo Brooks, photographer Brian Gill, and I prepared for Wednesday night’s NewsHour broadcast.