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Oil Shale – Union Oil

Historical Posts representing Adventure Continues: Second Quarter

Scientific Frontiers was in the process of closing when I found a note left on our door from my Hewlett-Packard rep mentioning that Union Oil was looking for a computer person for their Parachute Creek Oil Shale operation. This was such a turning point, I was now a computer person, maybe it was time to pursue this technology career. So I got the job, not because of experience but because of potential, or maybe because of flexibility. Few believed that this Oil Shale operation would be around much longer since the area was just coming off “Black Sunday” when Exxon shut down their Colony Oil Shale operation causing an economic disaster for the Western Colorado region. For me it was just another adventure.

Union Oil Shale Site 1981

Headquarters were in Grand Junction, CO, and the Oil Shale Operation was up the Colorado River on I70 at Parachute, CO. Exxon was in the process of building a city across from Parachute for 50,000 people that was now mostly a ghost town. Some 5000 inhabitants of the area had left so finding a place to live was no problem. We ended up renting a house in Clifton between Palisade and Grand Junction. My job site was in Parachute which required a 40 min drive along a really beautiful section of the Colorado River via Interstate 70. Union Oil’s computer operations were primarily based on IBM mainframes. We had a IBM mini computer on sight but we primarily relied on our 3270 vintage terminals to connect to corporate mainframes. I didn’t have any real experience with this platform but I quickly learned how the game was played. They had just installed their Foxboro process control computers to run the various components of the oil shale process. The Foxboro computer was mini computer with a real time control BASIC language reacting to live feedback from temperature, pressure and flow sensors. They sent me to Foxborough, MA, for a couple of weeks to learn how to program the Foxboro Computer. I then created the alarms that would dictate the parameters for which the operators must stay within. I was in technology heaven programming computers in the Parachute Creek canyon.

Grand Junction Valley from Colorado Monument
Grand Junction Valley from Colorado Monument

This was a time of growing up, buy a house, start a family, all of which is part of the Adventure. Grand Junction was adapting to the Oil Shale boom bust roller coaster, but at the core of this western entrance to the Rockies was still agriculture and outdoor recreation. I am so glad we were able to take advantage of this opportunity to enjoy western Colorado. From the desert to the mountains, there was plenty of Adventure to Continue. The Grand Mesa offered great backcountry skiing with some of the best powder skiing I ever experienced at Powderhorn.

We bought a house almost next to the Colorado River in Palisade from an older couple who taught Connie how to can fruit. Yes Fruit, this area was all about fruit orchards. Palisade was located at the entry to the Colorado River Canyon on the Western slope of the Rocky Mountains. Mt Garfield towered above us in Palisade. It was an awesome experience except for the pain we had to endure from two miscarriages as we tried to start a family.

Pressure was mounting on Union Oil to produce oil from the shale. Our country could not risk a dependance on the middle east so our oil shale operation existed to guarantee fuel for national defense. But would our process work? It was a very ambitious effort to mine shale, heat it in a retort to extract the oil and then move it from the side of the mountain 5 miles down the valley to the upgrade facility before it cooled to paraffin. In the annals of american engineering ingenuity, this was fascinating. I was right in the middle of it on the side of that mountain ready to make adjustments to the Foxboro programming. It didn’t work. It made sense to petroleum engineers, but they should have listened to the mine engineers. The abrasiveness of shale totally defeated the metal screw technology. Once the shale oil is extracted the spent shale expands to be even more abrasive like volcanic pumice. This spent shale was dumped over the side of the mountain after which we discovered that the rain water runoff was extremely carcinogenic and it was flowing to the Colorado River. I spent my remaining time with Union Oil helping to monitor this hazardous runoff that we were trying to capture with many holding ponds all the way down the canyon.

The next adventure would take us back to Steamboat Springs to work for ACZ, Inc.


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