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.

"They want us to be environmentally responsible, and we are," says Soychak. According to Rich Griebling, director of the state's oil and gas commission, drilling companies have been required since 1997 to reclaim the land they use. Sites drilled before then are exempt, and newly drilled wells take time to be reclaimed, which may explain why some pads have no vegetation around them, he says. Griebling also notes that companies have been more responsible about following the commission's regulations since that body started levying fines of, on average, more than $130,000 a year for non-compliance since 1995: "That got a lot of companies' attention." Griebling says most of the drilling operations across the state comply with regulations.

Officials from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry's lobbying arm, argue that drilling does not represent the only impact in the Grand Valley. "If you stand on top of Battlement Mesa and look out over that area, what you're seeing is all sorts of human development," says COGA executive vice president Greg Schnacke. "Interstate 70, industrial plants, housing -- all sorts of other development activities. Yes, you can see rigs running, but wells are a lot harder to see once they're in the ground. The relative impact is not that great."

However, none of those other alterations has generated near the level of animosity that drilling has. And in some cases, it's not just environmentalists who have concerns.

Anthony Camera
Bill Clough, who owns 8,000 acres near Parachute, thinks the drilling on his land is fine.
Anthony Camera
Bill Clough, who owns 8,000 acres near Parachute, thinks the drilling on his land is fine.

The last step in the drilling process, before a well is capped, is to "flare" the well. Once the sand and fluid are pumped in and gas starts flowing, the fluid and sand are pumped back out. Some gas comes back with it, and the gas is ignited, creating a flare that can last on and off for a few days or as long as a week. From there, wells are capped with gauges, and pads are built to collect and monitor the gas flow.

"When they flare at night, it looks like Dante's Inferno," says the GVCA's Peggy Rawlins.

The Rifle Fire Protection District runs its fair share of false alarms because of flarings. Though the industry tries to keep the district informed, motorists driving down I-70 frequently call in reporting fires. "I think the industry as a whole is really trying to work with us and accommodate our needs," says fire chief Michael Morgan. The industry as a whole -- it's such a migrant industry. They're here one day and in Vernal, Utah, the next. As they move from place to place, they're not that familiar with the needs of the local community."

Ten years ago, the fire department was responding to a lot of calls at the wells. After two gas workers were badly injured in a rig blowout, Morgan and others went to the oil and gas commission and voiced their concerns about safety. One step taken by the commission was to require companies to post exact locations so that workers who phone for help can better direct firefighters and paramedics.

In the last six to eight months, Morgan's volunteer department has been to five or six actual emergencies at well sites. A compressor station exploded. A rig fell over. A few weeks ago a worker was killed when a sixty-pound rigging fell and knocked him off the platform. "It's a dangerous profession," says Morgan.

Joan Savage has lived in the area for fifty years. A Kentucky native, she came here with her husband to work in the oil-shale business. She wound up as a rancher who owns about 7,000 acres, with 58 drilled wells. "I get very good royalties here," she says. "I like the money, I'll admit it."

Savage is pro-industry: "I think most people realize that the drilling is here and should be. It's a good, clean energy source." But she doesn't think the industry is drilling as responsibly as it could. "Taking beautiful cedar hillsides, clearing them down to level, putting grass in them. What they should do is replace the original mountain vegetation."

Barrett, says Savage, came into the area like a steamroller. "They have an absolute right to do what they're doing," Savage says. "We're challenging the way they're doing it." One old hayfield she knows has turned to dust since a well was placed on it.

The efforts of the GVCA notwithstanding, it was actually Savage and one of her neighbors, former Garfield County commissioner Arnold Mackley, who have made the biggest impact in slowing the gas industry down. Savage and Mackley live among the rolling hills of Rulison, midway between Parachute and Battlement Mesa to the west and Rifle to the east. Mackley's home provides an awesome view of the valley.

To give some perspective, Mackley drives up the hillside, where he owns 360 acres, and takes in one scarred well landscape after another. "We don't feel they have been good neighbors," Mackley says of Barrett. "Annihilating our land is one of our concerns." At 320-acre intervals, the wells are not noticeable. "That's what we thought when we got the lease." At 160 acres, the wells are livable. At forty, they become a hindrance.

When Barrett applied for twenty-acre well-spacing on the south side of the river early last year on a total of 7,000 acres, Savage, Mackley and four other landowners, who collectively own some 1,500 acres, fought back. "It would destroy our land values," says Roy Savage, Joan's son. "We couldn't live with that."

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