By Joel Warner
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Even if the drilling activities end up producing fewer well pads and new roads than the DOW fears, the noise and pollution associated with the operations still trouble many locals. Joe Clugston, for example, can speak eloquently and at length about the soil on the plateau and what big trucks might do to it.
"People don't seem to realize the actual environmental damage of dust," Clugston says. "Dust can kill trees; it can cover grass so the stock won't eat it. And that soil we have on the Book Cliffs is very, very fine. That shale grinds down finer than talcum powder. Every time you disrupt the soil, you create erosion and dust, and that disrupts the whole system. Game management is only part of it."
The roads up to the plateau are layers of dust or mud in the summer, ice in the winter. The gas companies have their own dust-mitigation strategies, including water and chemical trucks that are supposed to wet down the roads, but Clugston is dubious of their ability to subdue the Roan. "On those roads, if you spit on the ground, you will slide," he says. "Chains are sometimes useless. When it gets wet, it will stick to your tires, and you're riding mud over mud."
Elderkin has driven down the steep southern road from the rim in late fall with his truck doors open, ready to jump out if his vehicle starts to slide off the ridge. If the gas companies want year-round access to their rigs, "they're going to have to pave the roads," he says. "And if you pave them, that's the end of the wildlife. Unless you're racing ATVs around, there'll be no reason to go up there."
Cesark insists that all of the doomsday scenarios are premature and highly speculative, given the fact that the BLM hasn't yet released its plan for the plateau. "It's also important to talk about the economic impact and the jobs that would be generated," he says. "At a time when we're in a recession, this is one way to have economic growth. One rig, on average, employs 44 workers at a $2.2 million annual payroll. We've had a huge economic impact on Garfield County."
Mayor Lambert says Rifle hasn't felt much effect, positive or negative, from the current drilling boom other than an uptick in retail revenues from drill crews spending cash in town. The severance taxes paid by the gas companies go to the state and the county, he points out. He believes that energy development is only a small part of the growth his town has experienced in recent years, and he doesn't expect it to last. Not like the other benefits that come from having the Roan as the town's back yard.
"We want to see the traditional uses continue on the plateau," he says. "We don't want to see it chopped up into tiny pieces of real estate with roads all over. We want some of that pristine quality to remain."
As the number of gas wells in the county has steadily increased, so has the membership of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance. The grassroots organization began six years ago as the brainchild of a handful of environmentally concerned residents; its members now include many ranchers, people involved in real estate, construction and tourism, and others impacted by the drilling.
Dealing with gas companies and state regulators has given GVCA's leaders a jaundiced view of how the industry operates in Colorado, and their experiences have helped to shape local concerns about the risks involved in drilling on the plateau.
"One of our themes is to hold industry accountable," says GVCA president Peggy Utesch. "But the players constantly change. We used to be dealing with Barrett Resources, now it's Williams [which acquired Barrett in 2001]. It takes a couple of years of putting pressure on these companies, making them front-page news for their bad practices, and they start to get on board. Then they're gone, and somebody else moves in."
Many valley residents are living on a "split estate" -- they purchased land and possibly an existing home, but not the mineral rights to the property, which were retained by some prior owner or developer. Under state law, the surface occupants are entitled to little control, and often little compensation, when energy companies come calling, eager to exercise their rights to extract the minerals below ("Gas Pains," October 4, 2001). One GVCA member recently returned from vacation to find new roads and wells on his property; the gas company said it had made a "good faith" effort to notify him before proceeding.
"Theoretically, you negotiate in good faith," says homeowner Garland Anderson. "But if it doesn't please the gas company, they can have the operation bonded and do it without you. It's kind of like going to a negotiation with a knife when the other guy has a gun."
Anderson and his wife purchased their retirement home on Grass Mesa, across the river from Rifle, fourteen years ago. Their eighty-acre spread is part of a 3,000-acre subdivision surrounded by BLM land. In recent months, the area has been targeted by EnCana, a Canadian gas company. Anderson has watched the wells, waste ponds and trucks sprout all around him; just a few weeks ago, he received a certified letter informing him of EnCana's desire to drill on his land.