Gas Pains

Amy Potter's balcony offers a commanding view of Battlement Mesa, a Western Slope community named for the imposing geological formation. Most of the few thousand residents of the Grand Valley live there. Potter, a medical assistant, and her retired-cop husband used to live there, too. But a year ago they relocated north of Interstate 70 to tiny Parachute in search of solitude. The couple knew there would be natural-gas wells nearby, but they thought they could adapt. "When I looked at the view, I didn't figure it would be too much of a problem," Potter says.

Then, last Christmas, Denver-based Barrett Resources set up a 100-foot-tall drilling rig that poked out from behind a hill about a quarter-mile west of the Potter's 35-acre property. For three and a half weeks, the device churned loudly, boring thousands of feet into the earth in search of natural-gas deposits. Meanwhile, trucks from the largest drilling company in the valley traveled ceaselessly on a makeshift gravel road cut into the hillside, their brakes frequently thumping.

But noise wasn't the only issue. Sometimes rain would wash over the road, depositing soil-damaging silt in Potter's yard because culverts weren't big enough to handle the runoff, she says. An oily smell, like that of freshly laid asphalt, lingered even after a catalytic converter was installed. When workers finished, they left behind a flat, barren plain about the size of half a football field. Vegetation had been cleared away, and cedar roots were destroyed on the road cut into the hillside. A tiny well stood in the middle. At another well nearby, a portable toilet installed for workers blew over and scattered toilet paper for months before it was hauled away.

Potter is quick to say that she is not against drilling. Her father-in-law runs a drilling company in Wyoming; her grandfather was an early graduate of the Colorado School of Mines. Nevertheless, she doesn't like the way it's happening here. Yet she feels powerless. Land use is a constant topic in the Grand Valley because of two words: mineral rights. While surface owners can develop a parcel of land, the owners of subsurface mineral rights have the power to lease those rights to oil and gas companies, even if it means allowing them onto another's land.

Unlike some in the area, the Potters were aware that they didn't control mineral rights underneath their property. Those were retained by Robert Boruch when he sold them their home site. Boruch, who bought 160 acres outside of Parachute in 1994, is pleased with the drilling arrangement. He receives a 15 percent stake in the wells on property where he controls the mineral rights. "It's great for me," he says, and he minimizes the disruption. Where Potter sees a wasteland, Boruch sees a work in progress. He says Barrett will come back this fall to reseed the area. "Beforehand, all it was was a bunch of gullies," he claims. "It wasn't worth anything."

That, of course, is a matter of perception. Potter says "a lot of people are upset" but don't know what to do. However, she and her husband are taking action: They're returning to Battlement Mesa.

The narrow Grand Valley rests between Battlement Mesa to the south and the white-and-red-speckled Roan Cliffs to the north. Through the center run the interstate and the Colorado River. South of the freeway, the land is green and lush; grassy yards and orchards are common. To the north, the land is more arid. Even so, yucca, snowberries, Utah juniper, greasewood, four-wing salt bush and Indian rice grass cling to life in this rugged high country.

While much of the landscape has been given over to cattle and sheep grazing, mining has been central to the heritage of the entire valley. "Extractive industries have been here longer than a lot of people," says Steve Soychak, district manager for Williams, an energy company that purchased Barrett Resources in August. "It's part of the West."

And in that part of the West, between Glenwood Springs and Grand Junction, the presence of oil shale and natural gas has been acknowledged for decades. The challenge that has frustrated companies for generations is getting to it economically. As early as 1926, companies tried to extract oil shale. In 1944, the U.S. Bureau of Mines built a town of 72 houses for workers west of Rifle and built a shale plant that lasted until 1955. That year, the Southern Union Gas Company drilled the first producing gas well in the region. Later, the Colorado School of Mines was hired to run another oil-shale plant.

Some schemes seem improbable. The federal government was so eager to extract natural gas that, in 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated a small atomic bomb underground in nearby Rulison to try to fracture the sandstone that contained the fossil fuel. Unfortunately, the heat of the explosion turned much of the permeable sand surrounding the rocks to glass, and little gas was recovered. Officials today say there is no radioactive residue -- but there's no talk of nuking again.