Alternative fuels. The mention of the catch phrase conjures up 1970s images of soaring fuel prices, long gas lines and a defiant Arab cartel thumbing its nose at American consumers.

The crisis struck at the very heart of what Americans hold near and dear to their hearts: their automobiles.Americans were not about to give up their cars, so the only other option was to reduce dependence on foreign oil. And that meant exploitation of tar sands, oil shales and natural gas.

"That's when things really began to boom in Utah, Wyoming and Colorado" said Kent Stringham, a member of Utah's Board of Oil, Gas and Mining.

Speculators virtually raced to Utah to lay claim to Utah's vast reserves of oil locked in tar sands, oil shale or geological formations deemed too costly to penetrate.

"Yes, Utah does have a lot of reserves," Stringham said. "But they are very, very, very expensive reserves."

And when it proved too expensive to develop, the predicted bonanza turned bust. One company spent $120 million for the rights to one 10,240-acre tract of oil shale lands, and then spent more than $40 million developing a mine 45 miles south of Vernal. The finished facility was never used, and now the Bureau of Land Management spends about $70,000 a year maintaining the facility in anticipation of some future development.

"Nothing's being done anywhere on oil shale or tar sands," said Paul Andrews, Book Cliffs Resource Area manager for the Bureau of Land Management. "The price of oil just can't justify it."

Industry experts used to say that $25-a-barrel oil prices would justify the development of oil shale and tar sands. Then the break-even point doubled to $50 a barrel. "We don't have any idea what it would be now," Andrews said.

The key to development of oil shale and tar sands is stable oil prices. When there are wild fluctuations in price, most companies simply aren't willing to gamble on new technology, Stringham added.

That's despite the fact industry experts estimate the oil shale of the Green River Formation contains 1.8 trillion barrels of oil, of which 600 billion barrels are recoverable.

Those kind of reserves may prove valuable someday, but probably not any time in the near future. For those willing to invest in the long term, the BLM has a deal for you.

The state of Utah, for one, has proposed exchanging scattered tracts of state land for the 10,240 acres and developed mine.

Only one other company is currently interested in oil shales, and that project involves only experimental technology. There is also talk on the Uintah-Ouray Ute Reservation about oil shale developments there. But so far it's just talk; there's a marked shortage of investors.

The brightest spot on Utah's alternative fuel horizon is unquestionably natural gas. Industry officials say the Uintah Basin sits on one of the largest natural gas reserves anywhere in America.

Federal tax incentives for natural gas development in "tight sands" has directly resulted in a resurgent interest in Uintah Basin natural gas. Across the basin, officials say 150 new gas wells could be drilled this year and another 100 next year. The BLM has already approved 30 of 62 applications in the Book Cliffs Resource Area alone.

In addition to new wells, Colorado-Interstate Gas has filed a permit with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to build a 20-inch gas line from gas fields near Vernal to major gas lines in Wyoming, including the Kern River pipeline. The pipeline's capacity has already been sold, even though construction has yet to begin.

America's obsession with cleaner-burning fuels, as well as new technology to burn natural gas in automobiles, may make natural gas the Uintah Basin's meal ticket for generations to come.

Tomorrow: Oil has been the primary industry of the Uintah Basin for generations. But now local leaders are trying to diversify the economy in an effort to better cope with the boom-and-bust cycles.