Raiding the Roan

Rich in wildlife and natural resources, the Roan Plateau survived the last energy boom. Will this one destroy it?

"We bought for retirement, for aesthetic values, for the wildlife and the quietness and the fresh air," Anderson says. "All of a sudden, that's gone to heck in a handbasket. When we first got here, there was anywhere from 300 to 600 head of elk gathered down on the end of our lower forty, and several hundred deer at any time. This year I haven't seen a single elk on our property, and maybe six deer. They're running off the wildlife; we're sucking in the diesel fumes. Lots of trucks, lots of noise. And the dust is unbelievable. I had a computer burn up because of the dust inside, even though I was cleaning it out once a month."

Before his retirement, Anderson worked for oil companies engaged in offshore seismic exploration around the globe. These days, he's a prolific writer of letters to the editor of the local newspaper, questioning the gas boom and state policies that favor the gas companies over landowners. "People love to say, 'You knew what you were getting into when you bought the property without mineral rights,'" he says. "Well, we bought what we could afford, and nobody expected this level of development."

Even residents who aren't directly in the path of the drilling protest that the wells have a negative effect on their "viewshed" and property values. New wells often have to be "flared," burning off impure gas in a flickering visual display that can occur sporadically for several days. At night, the flaring on wells south of the river can make the area seem like a post-industrial nightmare out of Blade Runner.

Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor 
to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling 
will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive 
wildlife from the area.
Mark Manger
Former Rifle councilman Joe Clugston a regular visitor to the Roan Plateau, says that widespread gas drilling will bring roads, people and pollution -- and drive wildlife from the area.

"It gets to a point where you worry that you can't sell your land," says Duke Cox, a builder and GVCA boardmember who lives in the Silt area. "The public perception is that the area is going to be devastated -- and to some extent, they're right. It becomes a single-use area. Ranching and recreation become difficult when all you see are these rigs and compressor stations."

Utesch ticks off a long list of concerns shared by members of her group. Many of them involve water issues. The wells and compressors run on multiple diesel engines, raising fears about fuel spills. The waste pits contain an impressive array of heavy metals and chemicals used or pumped out of the ground in the extraction process, and not all companies line the pits with impermeable materials. In addition to the potential for groundwater contamination, there are also questions about the aquifers that the drills pass through on their way to the gas, aquifers critical to agriculture in the valley.

"The industry tells us what they do won't impact the aquifer, but if they punch a bunch of holes in it, how can they not?" Utesch asks. "They may be sealed off for now, but no one knows what the life span of the drill casing is. There's a lot of unanswered questions."

But industry and state officials say the companies have a solid track record in the valley. According to Cesark, there's been only one case of groundwater contamination out of the 780 wells that Williams and its predecessor, Barrett, have drilled in the county. "It affected a small, localized area, and that's in the process of being remediated," he says. "It's extremely rare."

Air tests at EnCana wells have indicated no violations of federal air quality standards, and state regulators say they're aware of only a handful of isolated problems involving the drilling in Garfield County. But Utesch says that's because many problems are never properly reported to or investigated by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which has a small staff and limited ability to actually inspect drilling sites.

"It's a complaint-driven system, but most people don't know who to call or go to for help," Utesch says. "During the drought, [a COGCC spokesman] stood up at a hearing and said there hadn't been any fires caused by flaring. When I reported that at a meeting of Divide Creek ranchers, two of them immediately said, 'Bullshit.' They had fires that burned their hay fields. They just hadn't been reported to the commission."

"Colorado is probably one of the most highly regulated states when it comes to oil and gas, but it's one of the least supervised and enforced," Anderson adds. "They don't have enough people to police these contract mineral extractors. When we complain loud enough and get an attorney, we can sometimes make them do what they're supposed to do in the first place."

Critics of the COGCC often characterize it as a regulator with a distinctly pro-industry tilt; Anderson refers to the agency as "the fox guarding the hen house." Members of the commission tend to have deep ties to the oil and gas industry, a trend that's continued with a vengeance in the appointments made by Governor Bill Owens, who was executive director of the Rocky Mountain Oil and Gas Association while serving in the state legislature ("This State for Sale," May 13, 1999). COGCC director Richard Griebling is familiar with the broadsides but says any pro-industry bias is a matter of law, not policy.

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