This State for Sale: A Special Report

The state's oil and gas industry proves that the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Owens's critics in La Plata County would disagree.
These days, the state's most bitter disputes over natural-gas pumping are coming from its southwestern corner. Dozens of residents have complained about noise and groundwater contamination from the 1,000 natural-gas wells in La Plata County.

"We produce the most natural gas in the state in La Plata County," says Gwen Lachelt of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based group that has clashed with the gas industry. "Here's this incredible gas resource, and it's right in people's backyards."

The nature of rural Colorado has changed, Lachelt explains, and residents increasingly live on 35-acre plots of land instead of the large ranches that once dominated the area. While a rancher could easily ignore pumping taking place in a corner of his ranch, that's not so easy when the pumping may be going on next door, she says.

"Colorado is a much different state now than it was in the 1950s," she observes.

In La Plata County, as in many other parts of Colorado, people have purchased land to build homes without buying the underground mineral rights. That means a gas company that acquires those rights can pump gas on the land legally. And even if a landowner has the mineral rights, under the legal concept of "pooling," he can be forced to allow the construction of a natural-gas well if the gas company owns the mineral rights on adjacent tracts.

Beyond the noise and smell of these wells, though, the biggest issue for their neighbors is water contamination. Since almost all rural Coloradans get their water from underground aquifers, they're concerned about the substantial amount of runoff from natural-gas pumping. They worry that chemical-laden water will be allowed to sink into the ground and get into their drinking water.

"We have hundreds of people here who have methane contamination of their well water," says Lachelt.

Such complaints led the La Plata County commissioners to create their own regulations for the industry last year. That law, a first for Colorado, says that surface-property owners should have the right to determine where a natural-gas well can be built on their property.

While Lachelt insists that her organization simply wants to give landowners some say over the location of gas wells on their land, Schnacke says that the people fighting the industry in La Plata county want to shut down natural-gas production altogether. "It's a 'not in my backyard' group," he claims. "They're opposed to all gas development."

Schnacke notes that La Plata County collects significant amounts of property-tax revenue from gas pumping and says that many in the area favor natural-gas development. The county's new regulations aren't fair to them or to the industry overall, he claims: "That regulation diminishes the rights of the mineral estate."

La Plata County's rules are being challenged in court by Owens's former employer, the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association, as well as the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. The state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently joined those groups in their lawsuit against La Plata County, an action that infuriated many locals.

"I'm very disappointed they took the stance they did," says La Plata County Commissioner Josh Joswick. "I think the oil and gas industry has a real large voice at the state level--at the oil and gas commission, in the legislature and at the governor's office."

The county's regulations aren't designed to prevent gas pumping, he explains, but to give some say to property owners about what goes on next to their homes. "We're saying the guy who has the surface rights shouldn't be run over roughshod," Joswick says.

But Joswick also recognizes that La Plata County is up against a powerful adversary that enjoys unique access to Colorado's corridors of power--all the way from the oil and gas commission to the governor's office.

"We're saying that we don't agree that they can do whatever the hell they want to do," he adds. "But it's an uphill fight.

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