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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.

At a series of hearings that began in March 2000 and continued into last fall, the Savages and several others tried to persuade the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission not to grant the request. The crux of the issue was a drilling technique called directional drilling. It's a process by which several wells can be drilled from one location, cutting down on the impact to the surface. Landowners wanted to see directional drilling implemented, but Barrett maintained that directional drilling was too costly. "We didn't want it mandated across the way," Soychak says. "Not all land owners want directional. Some of them prefer more pads and more roads. There are some savings in directional drilling, but overall it is more costly, because you run into problems" -- like "dog legs," bends in the well that can cause a drill bit to get stuck far beneath the earth. If the drill bit can't be recovered, the hole itself is lost.

Commission director Griebling says the hearings were contentious and that Barrett rankled at the notion of being ordered to drill directionally. However, the commission ultimately sided with neighbors -- protecting at least that small acreage from twenty-acre density on the surface, though it cost neighbors "several hundreds of thousands of dollars" in legal fees, says Savage. "It was tough on the smaller landowners, but they stuck it out. Otherwise they would have been destroyed."

Griebling says the decision has created a precedent. "Every operator we've talked to in that area has agreed that they would go along with limiting surface impacts to forty acres."

But to the industry, restricting drilling to forty acres might not prove enough. "I understand where people are coming from, but in order to develop a resource, you have to drill where it is," says COGA senior vice president Ken Wonstolen. "The rocks hold the gas in very tight." He says there are billions of cubic feet of gas under every square mile in the Piceance Basin. Drilling at forty acres recovers only half of that.


Despite the victory, critics in the area are still unhappy with the oil and gas commission, which was formed in 1952 to regulate fossil-fuel development in the state. At the time, there was concern about oil companies over-drilling oil fields and tapping out reservoirs. Griebling says the commission has undergone statutory changes over the years, most recently in 1994, when it was given more comprehensive authority to protect public health and the environment.

Nevertheless, many in the Grand Valley charge that the commission has not done enough. "Most of this wouldn't be as scary if we had regs on mitigation," says the GVCA's Bell-Sheeter, adding that Colorado's regulations are flawed and not enforced.

It is generally agreed, for instance, that requirements to drill on public land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management exceed requirements for the private lands the commission regulates. "Their legal direction is different than [ours]," says Steve Bennett, a BLM manager from Glenwood Springs. "Mitigating impact to wildlife is not a legal requirement the commission has been asked to do."

The increase in drilling in the last few years has caused the BLM to revise its 1991 land-use plan for Garfield County, which had not anticipated all the new wells. The land-use plan established regulations for companies wishing to drill in the county. Companies have to study and prepare plans to mitigate effects on wildlife, vegetation and even "view corridors" (so that the view of the area from the interstate does not appear totally scarred by invasive drilling).

A more serious complaint leveled against the commission, however, is that it is in the oil and gas industry's pocket. The seven-member board is appointed by the governor, and its members have always had close ties to the industry; some even work for it. (Governor Bill Owens himself is the former executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Association; prior to that, he was a lobbyist for the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association.) "The leeway they have is they're self-regulated," says Travis Stills, staff attorney and research director for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a nonprofit watchdog group in Southwestern Colorado. "[Oil and gas industry] employees and retirees and consultants make up the oil and gas conservation commission. Basically, the fox is guarding the henhouse."

Griebling says those complaints are misguided. "It ignores the fact that no matter who you appoint to the commission, under current law it is still charged with carrying out requirements that mandate development of oil and gas resources." Which is to say the commission is supposed to promote drilling. The GVCA has been trying for years to pass a conflict-of-interest bill that would open up the commission to members not affiliated with the industry. These efforts have so far failed.

Meanwhile, drilling continues. On public lands overseen by the BLM, Williams is proposing a pilot project for 150 wells on the Naval Oil Shale Reserve in the next couple of years. That project will allow subsurface wells to be located only ten acres apart. A similar ten-acre project is under way on land that Bill Clough owns.

"There are hundreds of wells on BLM land," says Steve Bennett, an associate field planner for the bureau in Glenwood Springs. "The gas resource is good, so very few wells are dry holes. Most of the places they're drilling, they're getting production. They can keep them in production for years."

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