Natural resources more blessing than curse

As the Mesa County economy has slowed from the torrid pace of 2007 and 2008 to the snail’s pace of 2009 and 2010, there’s been a great deal of talk about the positives and negatives of the oil and gas component of the local economy.

Some in the media, including members of the Denver Post business staff, have taken the position that economies that depend too heavily on natural resources tend to perform more poorly over the long run than those that are more diversified.

For starters, I wouldn’t say that the Mesa County economy suffers from a “resource curse” or that it’s strictly dependent on natural resources for economic development. Quite to the contrary, five of the six largest employers in the county are government — Mesa County, Mesa County School District 51, Mesa State College and the State of Colorado.  St. Mary’s Hospital is the the largest private employer.

On the other hand, natural resources in general and natural gas development in particular constitute an important and relatively steady component of Mesa County’s economic mix that have provided an important third leg to compliment our retail- and tourism-based economy.

One example of this positive impact has been Mesa County’s net employment growth over the last five years relative to counties on the Eastern Slope that are purported to be more diverse and therefore more stable than Mesa County.

An obvious, but questionable, concern expressed by many is that Mesa County has further to fall and is ultimately doomed to repeat the long contraction that occurred following the oil shale bust in the 1980s. I would counter that concern with the argument that unlike the complete mothballing of the oil shale industry in the 1980s, the current Piceance gas rig count is not necessarily prone to a continued reduction in activity and could, in fact, be relatively sustainable given the level of pipeline and gas processing infrastructure investment that has been put in place in the region and the ability of the industry to maintain a modest capital investment program despite the poor gas price environment due to increased operating efficiencies.

As evidence of this continued activity, consider Williams Production’s  $700 million operating budget for the region in 2011 and Encana’s plans to increase its rig count in the region, which should help to counteract ExxonMobile’s reduction in activity. In addition to these three players, the economic activity among seven other companies — Antero, Berry, Bill Barrett, Gunnison, Noble, Oxy and Petro Development — should be considered.

If we are to look forward to 2015, I think we will find the development of coal, natural gas, uranium and other natural resources will continue to be much more of a blessing than a curse on the economic vitality of Mesa County.