Look Out Below!

When a Denver gas company started drilling wells in Las Animas County, it brought bad feelings to the surface.

"We kind of feel like we've taken on a burden for the whole state," says Penny Bieber, who has lived in the area for more than twenty years. "This is an issue everywhere."

Conflicts between natural-gas companies and the people who live where they are pumping are not new. Battlement Mesa has been the site of numerous disputes. Because of problems outside Durango, La Plata County commissioners have tried to impose their own regulations on the industry, passing noise-control standards and giving property owners more say about where wells can be located on their land. But these are bold moves that may not withstand court challenges. State regulations generally favor the oil and gas industry, one of the most politically powerful groups in Colorado. (Newly elected governor Bill Owens worked for several years as the executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Association.)

Natural-gas extraction in the state is governed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, an industry-friendly board that has clashed with residents on the Western Slope as well as those in Las Animas County.

According to Rich Griebling, director of the commission, rural property owners often fail to grasp that ownership of mineral rights is just as real as ownership of land. "A lot of people don't understand the property rights that mineral owners have," he says. "A lot of surface owners assume the state or county commissioners can eliminate the right to develop the minerals. That's not the case."

Before they filed their lawsuit, several members of SoCURE met with Griebling and other oil and gas commissioners. At one meeting this past summer, SoCURE asked the commission to aid in finding a solution to the Bon Carbo dispute.

Griebling says he told the group the commission might be able to help by hiring a mediator, but only if they dropped the planned lawsuit. "I could see it wouldn't be possible to pull that off if they pursued litigation," he says.

Dave Groubert remembers the meeting somewhat differently. He says SoCURE wanted the commission to help form a committee that would try to hammer out rules governing the natural-gas industry in Las Animas County. "The [oil and gas commission] said this committee would have no ability to enforce rules," Groubert recalls. "They said it would basically be a discussion panel and it wouldn't have any authority of any kind."

Among the commissioners encouraging SoCURE to drop its planned lawsuit was Molly Sommerville, Groubert says. At the time, his group didn't know that Sommerville works for Evergreen's law firm, Welborn Sullivan Meck & Tooley.

"My recollection is that she was echoing the other commissioners, saying there would be no point in Evergreen participating [in mediation] if there was litigation," says Groubert. "I didn't have a clue she was involved with Evergreen."

Sommerville insists she's never worked on behalf of Evergreen. She can't be accused of a conflict of interest, she adds, because as a commissioner, she's never actually cast a vote on an issue involving the company.

"Certainly, if the commission had to make a decision, I would recuse myself," Sommerville says.

SoCURE's members insist that they're not opposed to gas drilling but just want regulations in place that protect their water supply. So far, though, they've found all their dealings with public officials to be frustrating, since they're repeatedly told there's nothing anyone can do.

"Everything is stacked against us," says Bieber.
There's little action the county can take, says Las Animas County Commissioner Mike Ossola, who represents the Bon Carbo area. "Most of the rules and regulations pertaining to oil and gas are from the state," he adds.

Las Animas County has 300,000 subdivided acres, and most of that is in the scenic western half of the county. Unfortunately, natural gas is located under that scenic acreage. "When people bought the land, they should have realized they didn't have the mineral rights," Ossola says. "I wouldn't want a well next to me, either, but Evergreen is exercising its rights."

Ossola's efforts to mediate between the two sides were unsuccessful. "I'm going to let them fight it out in court," he says with a sigh. "When things go to court, nobody wins."

People in Las Animas County take the fight over Evergreen personally. The slander-and-trespassing suit filed by the company made sure of that.

Owners of two ranch properties who have allowed Evergreen to install wells on their land joined with the company as plaintiffs. Their suit names SoCURE and several of its members, including Groubert, Beck and Kircher. The Bon Carbo activists are accused of damaging Evergreen's business reputation and lowering the value of the ranchers' land by making "misleading and damaging" accusations. The lawsuit also accuses Groubert of trespassing on Taylor's property to take pictures of one of the wells.

Beck says SoCURE may have to spend as much as $20,000 defending itself in the suit, which she views as an attempt by Evergreen to intimidate its critics.

"Here we are in the U.S.A., and we're supposed to have freedom of speech," she says. "Now we have to think, 'What if we say something and get sued?'"

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