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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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Where it all started

Yampa Valley

Yampa Valley

On my trip back to the Northwest an important stop for me is Steamboat Springs, CO. An old Indian legend of the Yampa was that one returns to live in the Yampa Valley 3 times. That legend was true for me. First as a Ski Bum living in Ski Time Square next to the Tugboat Saloon. I was a refugee from working at Snow Mountain Ranch and came to Steamboat with a job at the Holiday Inn in 1976. Of course this evolved after serving as a Presbyterian missionary working at a Chicano Day Care, “House of Neighborly Service” in Brighton, CO, during the summer of 76. Well the first stop in Steamboat ended when it did not snow that winter and they closed the mountain (soon there after snow making was installed).

Scientific Frontiers Grand Opening 1981

Computer Store Looks to Future

The second visit was really the beginning of the computer career. I was a chemist at a electric power plant in Gary, IN, making a lot of money in a strike situation. I had purchased an Apple II and was obsessed with it. So I called my college room mate, Jeff Troeger, who was just finishing up his MBA and Law degree at IU. I asked him if he wanted to start a computer store in Steamboat Springs, CO. He weighed his alternative of working at the family business in South Bend, IN or move to Steamboat. Jeff is still here in Steamboat.

My final move to Steamboat occurred in 1984 after leaving the Oil Shale, UniCal Parachute Creek Project, to work for at the time, ACZ Inc. By this time I was a legitimate computer guy who was hired to be the I head of IT for this mine engineering consulting company with a commercial environmental lab. Today I am staying with one of last remaining mine engineers from ACZ living in Steamboat, Jerry Nettleton.

Steamboat Springs

Steamboat Springs

Fish Creek Falls

Fish Creek Falls

My visit here has been fabulous. My dog Abby has regenerated her appetite and is loving the opportunity to get back to her normal 22 hours of sleep per day. My first day involved hitting all the memorable sites. Views above the town, Fish Creek Falls, and exploring the new micro breweries. I hooked up with Jeff and he invited me to take his favorite hike  on day 2 from his house up to the Thunderhead Lodge (top of gondola) on Mt. Werner. The hike was just what I needed to push the body for the upcoming PCT backpacking. 9.5 miles and 2200″ of vertical that hurt so good. Rainy day today but plan to seek out a few more old friends and do a little memorabilia shopping. On to Walla Walla, WA, tomorrow.

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