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Leslie Griffith Headshot

Deliverance from the Fox in the Hen House

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The verge of bankruptcy brought me to California. Spurred by a boom-and-bust cycle in western Colorado, packing up the kids and the trailer and moving further West was the only way to survive.

Looking back now, dueling banjos play the tune from "Deliverance" in my head, providing levity -- for a brief moment. But the parallels between then and now are no laughing matter.

Place: Western Colorado.

Time: Early 1980s.

Political situation: Arab oil embargo; President Jimmy Carter initiated the Synfuels Corporation -- a publicly-funded investment bank designed to free Americans of dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

Plan: Pump 88 Billion dollars of tax payer's money into Synfuels to encourage domestic fuel production. In Colorado, it was oil shale, a sedimentary rock that can be heated to release hydrocarbons that can be distilled into synthetic oil.

Problem: Heads of major oil companies flooded into Grand Junction with joy abundant, an implausible plan, and both hands held out. Trusting those in the oil industry to find alternative forms of domestic fuel was not a good idea. Jimmy Carter trusted the fox to guard the hen house.

Thus, the oil shale industry was born, bringing tens of thousands of people and hundreds of businesses to western Colorado. By golly, it was a boom! Towns with names such as Rangeley and Rifle were born -- prosperity for all! Reporters were silent.

But this is where the Rorschach test pattern, which looked like a picture of progress and hope at first, began morphing into demonic ink blots painting a long-term picture of despair. We reporters had not put the pixels together...yet.

Ronald Reagan got elected, proclaiming big government was the problem, not the solution, and some key government subsidies were, according to Mr. Reagan, part of that problem. By 1986, the Synfuels program was terminated and the flow of money stopped.

But it was too late. Mountains were bombed and giant grain mill-sized distilleries were filled with shale rocks containing precious fossil fuel.

I witnessed it all as a very green cub reporter. Just 24 years old when the Synfuels program peaked, I found myself gazing up at the skyscraping retort with breathless awe other reporters/cheerleaders openly shared.

We hoped it would work. People in Grand Junction were happy and buying lots of everything, including advertising on radio and television.

The retorts roared and shook from the intense heat "experts" assured us would easily seduce the fuel from the shale. What came out? Well, to be proper, it was the sound of deflating tires. To be Colorado Crude, it sounded like a wet fart.

Those who speculated on the rapid boom, those who built the buildings and homes and businesses supporting tens of thousands of newcomers to western Colorado went suddenly, and shockingly, bust.

One acquaintance, who built a high-rise to house oil company executives, took the elevator to the top of his boom-time building and threw himself off. A temporary millionaire, he died a pauper. Does this sound familiar? At this point, the boom was in the rear-view mirror and the only things in demand were a U-Haul trailer and an on-ramp to Interstate 80. The housing market collapsed, jobs evaporated, and my girls and I hit the road -- arriving in the Bay Area, which, ironically, was booming.

Lesson learned: Had reporters done some research and reporting, we might not have lifted our pom-poms with so much enthusiasm when the oil companies came to call. We did not have Google's library at our fingertips, and Grand Junction's Mesa County library did not have books explaining the particulars of oil shale. Oil shale was never a promising source of crude and it was used mostly at that time by backwards Eastern European countries with dictators -- places Like Romania -- where, if one was lucky enough to have a fireplace, the shale rocks were used like coal.

If only I had known then what I know now: that corporate greed is insatiable and when coupled with a little collusion from the government, the little guys paying taxes get a good butt-kicking.

Today, those working to get Wall Street out of trouble are the same people who used to run it. They cannot conceive of any plan other than shoring up an already broken, corrupt, inadequate, unpatriotic, every-man-for-himself system.

Putting Wall Street "experts" in charge of changing Wall Street is much like putting oil company CEOs in charge of finding alternatives to fossil fuels. Is the fox loose in the hen house again?
Concerned and cautious of those who criticize without offering potential solutions, here are two from a gal who's seen one too many booms turn into boondoggle.

Most Americans work for corporations. Most corporations require employees to invest their retirement money in the stock market. That should stop. (I hear you gasping!) It's the employees' money; let them do what they want to with it. We now know that even giants fall.

On the housing front, empower average, regular workers, the real worker-bees of this top-heavy management world. Challenge the workers of this country to put their rage and sense of impotence aside and help. How, you ask? Here's one plan.

Why not give those willing to buy repossessed homes at bargain basement prices a one-time pass on capital gains taxes? Construction workers now drawing unemployment checks could do their magic on fixer-uppers and, without paying capital gains, they might be able to sell them and make a few bucks. It's a lot like the formula the "go-to guys" who started this mess are using.

Finally, here's my most defining boom and bust cycle lesson. The size of the government has doubled since 1995 and the number of investigative journalists watching over that government has, well, dwindled. That's a formula for more greed and corruption.

Warnings need special delivery from reporters before the tsunami hits and the strumming of the banjos delivers us to despondency. Reporters cannot be government and corporate mouthpieces.

As I write this, down the block from my home sit two repossessed homes. A wonderful, older couple -- both former hippies -- built the homes with their own hands. Strangled by mortgage payments they could not make, they threw the keys on the banker's desk, packed up the U-haul, hugged the neighbors goodbye, and pulled out the driveway looking for the nearest freeway on-ramp. Waving goodbye, I heard the banjo play.

Painfully Ironic P.S: There is talk of reviving the oil shale industry.