Energy boom fallout in Utah

Local businesses like McDonalds are understaffed as low-paid workers leave Vernal or find work in the oil fields.

PHOTO GALLERY: Vernal, Utah
TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: Congress takes up the issue of oil and gas royalties in Washington today. House Democrats want to channel billions of dollars in botched royalty payments into a renewable energy fund. But in parts of the Rocky Mountain West, where oil and gas drilling has reached 21-year highs, local governments say there are more pressing needs for that money. Sam Eaton reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk.


SAM EATON: Rayna Nielson has lived in Vernal, Utah long enough to remember past energy booms in this oil and gas-rich corner of the western Rockies. But she doesn't remember it ever getting this bad.

While many in this small town are cashing in on the boom, low wage earners like Nielson are falling through the cracks.

RAYNA NIELSON: It's so expensive where the oil field is really booming but as a woman, single with children, you can't make what the oil field people do.

Nielson scans the shelves at the local food bank, grabbing school supplies and boxes of mac and cheese for her two children.

Rents here have doubled as thousands of highly-paid roughnecks stream into Vernal to work the nearby oil and gas fields. They're now overwhelming the local housing market.

Louise Taylor manages the Ashley Valley food bank.

LOUISE TAYLOR: We have landlords here that have literally kicked out families and said I can get more money out of oil field workers. And they can.

The Uinta County seat in Vernal has been overwhelmed with phone calls from evicted tenants with no place to go. Waiting lists for rent vouchers have doubled over the past year.

A new homeless shelter for 26 people now under construction — the first in the town's history — will be full as soon its doors open. County commissioner Mike McKee says that's just the tip of the iceberg.

MIKE MCKEE: We cannot provide all the service that's needed. It's just beyond what local government is able to do.

As Congress votes on whether to divert royalty payments into renewable energy projects, Mckee questions why more of that money isn't reaching places like Vernal. He says that's where the oil industry's impacts are most deeply felt.

The state of Utah, which takes the second-largest share of royalties after the federal government, sees housing as a local issue. It's more inclined to fund new roads for energy exploration.

In the meantime emergency service agencies are blowing through their annual budgets in a matter of months. Norma Jurado is with the local association of governments.

NORMA JURADO: It's horrible. It's horrible when people call you and they're desperate and all you can say is 'I'm out of money. I'm sorry but I can't help you.'

Left to their own devices, many of Vernal's homeless are doubling up with relatives or racking up credit card bills staying in local motels. Others, like Rayna Nielson and her two kids, are giving up on Vernal for good.

EATON: Are you sad to leave?

NIELSON: Well yeah. Cause I've grown up here pretty much my whole life. But you have to go where you can make it now.

EATON: And it's not here in Vernal?

NIELSON: It's not. Not right now.

In Vernal, Utah, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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