Gas Pains

Drilling for natural gas on the Western Slope has punched holes in some residents' dreams of solitude. Others see it as the way of the West.

One of the companies that followed Barrett's lead was the Denver-based Tom Brown Inc. (President George W. Bush once served on Brown's board of directors.) In 1997, Brown applied for forty-acre well spacing in a large area next to Battlement Mesa. Landscaper Janey Hines, who had moved to Parachute from Colorado Springs a few years earlier, lived in a rustic home in a lush patch in Battlement Mesa with a great view of the valley. She had been watching with dismay as wells went in throughout the area. One every forty acres was asking for too much density. She went to a local meeting of industry and government officials, where she met land developer Joan Savage. Savage asked Hines to help her draw up a reclamation agreement with Barrett on Savage's property.

That first meeting was Hines's introduction to the industry, and she didn't like what she saw. She posted fliers on cars at the local market, each containing a little map of the area where drilling was going on. "I just plastered the town of Parachute," she recalls. Hundreds gathered for a meeting that summer to discuss the proliferation of wells in the area and ways to curtail them, and Hines led a group of thirty or so residents to Denver to complain to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Although residents were allowed to speak, their opinions carried no legal weight. However, their protests had an effect on Brown, whose application had been approved. The company tried to work with neighbors, and the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance was born.

Hines deplores a culture intent on overusing natural resources and trying to squeeze out extra percentage points on the bottom line to appease stockholders. "There are a lot of downsides to drilling," she notes. "Air-quality impacts...and it's directly in conflict with other land uses."

Not everyone is sympathetic to the GVCA's cause, however. "It don't affect them a damn bit," Clough says of the drilling, "but they're raising so much damn hell."

To those such as Clough, the issue is contractual. And the gas companies have done nothing wrong. "They can't stop Barrett from drilling," he says.

But Hines is determined to try. She uses an impromptu tour of the area to make her point, driving up to Grand Valley Mesa on the north side of the highway. It's a small nub sitting below the Roan Cliffs tinged with some green vegetation, unusual on the semi-arid north side. A few years ago the Grand Valley Mesa was ignored, she notes, but today barren cutouts on the mesa indicate drilling. To her, the sparse north side is a fragile environment that drilling is destroying. Hines accuses the gas-exploration industry of not "living an ethic of being careful.

"This land," she adds, "has no one to speak for it."

On the narrow, winding gravel roads that link the sparse human settlements and the plethora of wells, a fleet of huge red Halliburton trucks carry crews to operate the machines that pierce the subterranean rock. Hines points out site after site on which well pads are created by clearing away large spaces of natural vegetation.

"The soil in west Garfield County, once it's disturbed, springs noxious weeds," says GVCA member Shirley Willis. "[Developers] knock down trees and cut out shrubs. They don't come back. It takes years."

"When I was out there looking at reclamation work, I felt that a lot of it was really inadequate," says Ed Redente, a professor of rangeland ecosytems at Colorado State University. "It was apparent that higher density was only going to lead to greater problems." Redente says that poor reclamation can lead to erosion, poor vegetation and inadequate habitat for wildlife.

As proof, the GVCA points to a 2000 report prepared by a wildlife biologist stating that increased drilling in Parachute Creek, north of Parachute, has led to a decline in the population of a non-migrating herd of mule deer. The herd at one time represented one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in the state, numbering as high as several thousand. And another study, also completed last year by a San Mateo, California, air-quality laboratory, reported that benzene, a known cancer-causing agent, was detected near a well in Rulison at twice the ambient-air standard.

In addition to the reports, there are plenty of anecdotes about upheaval caused by drilling. The GVCA says it has heard from more than 200 people statewide with complaints. But few can compare to the disruption that began four years ago when Kay and Wendell Goad's water well blew after a gas well exploded almost a mile away.

At first the Goads didn't make the connection to the mining operation. Wendell was heading to work when he came down his driveway and saw it was flooded. He thought the problem was with his water well, so he shut down power to the pump. But water kept coming, and Goad guessed that the source of the trouble was the nearby wells. He called Barrett, whose crew arrived quickly. However, pressure led the gas 4,000 feet underground to the Goad's water well. Gas had leaked into their home as well, and the couple had to move out for several days. For months afterward, they had to keep their windows open and run a fan in the crawl space. Cigarette smoking was banned on the property.

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