Drillers may be pulling oil and gas out of the ground faster than they ever have in Weld County, but it’s only the latest development in more than a century of drilling in Colorado.
Colorado’s oil and gas drilling history dates back to the 1860s when crude was discovered in Oil Creek in Florence in southern Colorado, producing 13 million barrels by 1925.
Later, drilling in the Boulder Field — the first fully developed field in Colorado started with the McKenzie Discovery Well in 1902 — touched off the firestorm that is the drilling program in today’s Denver-Julesburg Basin, the oldest, continually operating oil and gas basin in the entire world since the turn of century.
Cliff Roberts, 73, an environmental engineer with Ensign Drilling in LaSalle, has been beating a drum for four years to take those facts and finally put them down somewhere. He’s been collecting photos, researching history and buying up artifacts to memorialize the industry that’s been his and his family’s life.
“There was an auction 15 years ago and a Fort Worth cable tool rig used in the Boulder Field was in it, and I bought it,” said Roberts, who calls himself “third-generation oil trash.”
“I was afraid it would get scrapped out. I knew what it was, so I purchased it and kept it at the Wattenberg Yard over the years,” he said.
But out of more than 100 years of exploration and drilling, booms and busts and discoveries, there’s no one repository for the artifacts, photos and stories that trace the industry’s history to today — an integral part of America’s economy, and one that will soon bring the country long-awaited energy security.
“I kept promoting it like John the Baptist,” Roberts said of his efforts to begin the Oil and Gas Museum of Colorado, through which he’ll be the curator and historian.
Four years ago, he got the DJ Basin Safety Council to listen, and today, Roberts, and council officers Barbara Kirkmeyer and Tommy Holton, are pitching the idea to companies throughout the field. They’ll be knocking on doors in the coming weeks, and have already gotten a commitment from Anadarko Petroleum Corp.
The goal is to come up with $10 million to get the project off the ground, and possibly another $5 million to expand it. Already, the group has been able to close on the Western Sugar Factory site in Fort Lupton to rehab into a modern-day museum with indoor and outdoor exhibits, as well as a theater.
“Part of it is to keep history alive,” said Holton, also Fort Lupton’s mayor, and Weld County’s only representative on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “It’s been around since the late 1800s, and a lot of artifacts and pictures are going to start going away.
“A big portion of it will be the educational aspect, for kids to take field trips and have interactive displays,” Holton said. “That’s why the price is kind of floating, because we don’t know how much technology we can put in.”
The hope is not only to preserve, but educate the public about the history of the industry, which now is such a large contributor to the state’s and county’s economy, providing more than 50,000 jobs across the state.
Judging by the amount of money companies are pumping into northeast Colorado, the industry is not going away anytime soon. Some say it will last another 30 to 50 years, with estimates changing all the time.
That hits another aspect of the museum’s purpose: getting kids interested in starting careers in the industry.
“Maybe some will want to be engineers and geologists,” Holton said.
Added Kirkmeyer: “There’s a lot of really good career opportunities in the industry. If we can just capture their minds and get them excited about it, thinking about the rocks, and putting things together,” it could help feed workers into the industry.
Kirkmeyer, also a Weld County commissioner, said the nonprofit museum group is working with the Fort Lupton Re-8 School District on a two-week curriculum for kindergartners through 12th-graders that would culminate with field trips to the museum.
The current political climate in Colorado and other portions of the country have demonized the industry, charging pollution and reckless disregard for the environment.
But many say the industry isn’t telling its story and educating the public. The museum can help do that as well.
“I think the oil and gas companies have done a horrible job of promoting and explaining the industry to the public,” said Holton, who has been complaining to industry leaders for the last few years. “They’re starting to do that now, with programs they take to school. In the past, they wanted to hide in the weeds. … The outreach to the public, they’re just getting started.”
A major part of the conversation will be to educate the public on how technology has continually improved drilling techniques, and what the industry is doing to safeguard the land while it extracts the oil and gas. With that comes explanations of the technology that has continually improved drilling through the years — enough to put the idea into many heads that the industry will never go away in Colorado.
“Now, with horizontal drilling, the industry is in a boom, and I don’t see that waning in the near future,” Roberts said. “It’s completely revolutionized the industry.”
Back in the ‘40s, his dad predicted it, Roberts said.
“He said we’ll never run out. New technology will discover new ways. He was a visionary. I don’t see any end to it.”