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.

Others tried different approaches. After the oil crisis in the '70s, Exxon came to the valley, confident it could profitably extract oil shale where others had failed. To get at the valley's estimated billions of barrels of oil shale, the company began to construct the community of Battlement Mesa. The $6 billion Exxon project was reportedly the nation's largest industrial undertaking at the time. Cynics weren't impressed. Longtime resident Carl Roberts remembers that the oil-shale projects amounted to "not a whole lot more than a government giveaway to a couple of oil companies." Exxon's team concluded it would have to sell oil at too high a price to break even, so the oil giant pulled out of town in 1982, and Parachute almost dried up.

Until very recently, the valley struggled economically. There was ranching and there was recession, says Joan Savage, a landowner in Rulison who came to Colorado for oil shale and ended up a land developer. Occasionally there was an economic "splash" from up-valley -- Aspen or Glenwood Springs, whose high rents drove workers to Parachute, Battlement Mesa and Rifle for affordable housing.

Despite the mining legacy, for years it seemed no one worried about mineral rights in the area because there was no activity, Savage says. The bulk of the oil-shale projects were on public land, anyway, and no one was really drilling much for natural gas. "It didn't dawn on anybody that they were living in a gas field," Savage says.

Now it does. Natural gas currently accounts for 15 percent of the United States' energy consumption. In coming decades, experts project it will rise to 40 percent. The current Bush administration has proposed an aggressive energy plan that would increase both oil and natural-gas exploration and extraction in the U.S. It is estimated that there are at least tens of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the Grand Valley alone. Industry officials meeting at a convention in Denver this summer speculated that there may be as much as 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in northwestern Colorado's Piceance Basin, leading some to declare the area the "Saudi Arabia" of natural gas.

Four or five years ago, Barrett Resources operated between 250 and 300 wells in and around the valley. The company was bought this past August by the Tulsa-based Williams Company; it now has 560 wells in three contiguous fields in the Grand Valley area that produce 160 million cubic feet of natural gas a day. That's more than any other gas company in Garfield County, which includes Parachute, Rifle, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale. The gas that Williams produces in one year in the county is enough to heat half a million homes during that amount of time. "In the county, there's probably over a thousand wells," district manager Soychak says. In the coming years, he adds, "there could be two to three times that much."

Statewide, an average of 1,035 wells were permitted every year between 1995 and 1999. Last year, 1,529 were permitted; this year, nearly 1,500 new wells are anticipated. In Garfield County, the number of wells being permitted has risen since 1995, when 78 were approved. Last year, 213 were permitted, and around 254 are expected this year.

Proponents point out that natural gas burns cleaner than fossil fuels and is the ideal resource to transition to an energy economy based on renewables like wind and solar in coming decades. They also will tell you that the United States produces about 85 percent of the natural gas it consumes, with almost all of the rest coming from Canada. A tiny portion is imported on tankers. In contrast, our nation imports most of its oil.

Small communities throughout the West -- from Durango to Steamboat Springs to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming -- are facing the fact that the Rocky Mountain region is becoming a major player in natural-gas extraction. While a lot of the gas is methane extracted from coal beds, the Grand Valley gas is trapped in sedimentary basins such as the Piceance and, to the northwest, the Uintah. These sedimentary basins cap hydrocarbons underground, sometimes thousands and thousands of feet down. The tightness of the subterranean formations means that multiple wells have to be drilled to tap the fuel.

"We don't want to stop the drilling," says Shirley Willis, a member of the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance, an organization that is trying to slow down the drilling. "We just don't want them to contaminate the water or the air." Willis and other activists complain that the well pads -- the small series of tanks on the surface that collect the gas and trace amounts of water -- are located in drainage areas and in riparian areas, where wildlife congregates. Others cite the lack of environmental reclamation on pads or the traffic of trucks as hazards.

"We are the sacrifice zone for national energy policy," says Alicia Bell-Sheeter of the GVCA.

Natural-gas wells have been a godsend for Bill Clough, who owns mineral rights on 8,000 acres near Parachute. In 1971, NW Energy came in and leased those rights from Clough's property for ten years. At the time, gas was selling for about 16 cents per thousand cubic feet, he says, too cheap a return for the gas company to do much drilling. When President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, gas prices had increased. Still, NW drilled only 35 wells, then sold out to another company, which did nothing to the land. Eventually, Barrett got the lease. "Boy, they went to drilling," Clough says.

Barrett first worked on his property in 1981, placing one well every 640 acres. Over subsequent years, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency charged with overseeing the oil and gas industry, granted Barrett and other companies permits to probe at higher densities. From one well every 640 acres, companies eventually began locating one well every 320 acres, then 160, then forty. Now, in many places, wells sit at twenty- and even ten-acre intervals. Clough is an unabashed supporter, and the results are apparent: There are now 68 wells on his property.

One of the companies that followed Barrett's lead was the Denver-based Tom Brown Inc. (President George W. Bush once served on Brown's board of directors.) In 1997, Brown applied for forty-acre well spacing in a large area next to Battlement Mesa. Landscaper Janey Hines, who had moved to Parachute from Colorado Springs a few years earlier, lived in a rustic home in a lush patch in Battlement Mesa with a great view of the valley. She had been watching with dismay as wells went in throughout the area. One every forty acres was asking for too much density. She went to a local meeting of industry and government officials, where she met land developer Joan Savage. Savage asked Hines to help her draw up a reclamation agreement with Barrett on Savage's property.

That first meeting was Hines's introduction to the industry, and she didn't like what she saw. She posted fliers on cars at the local market, each containing a little map of the area where drilling was going on. "I just plastered the town of Parachute," she recalls. Hundreds gathered for a meeting that summer to discuss the proliferation of wells in the area and ways to curtail them, and Hines led a group of thirty or so residents to Denver to complain to the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Although residents were allowed to speak, their opinions carried no legal weight. However, their protests had an effect on Brown, whose application had been approved. The company tried to work with neighbors, and the Grand Valley Citizens' Alliance was born.

Hines deplores a culture intent on overusing natural resources and trying to squeeze out extra percentage points on the bottom line to appease stockholders. "There are a lot of downsides to drilling," she notes. "Air-quality impacts...and it's directly in conflict with other land uses."

Not everyone is sympathetic to the GVCA's cause, however. "It don't affect them a damn bit," Clough says of the drilling, "but they're raising so much damn hell."

To those such as Clough, the issue is contractual. And the gas companies have done nothing wrong. "They can't stop Barrett from drilling," he says.

But Hines is determined to try. She uses an impromptu tour of the area to make her point, driving up to Grand Valley Mesa on the north side of the highway. It's a small nub sitting below the Roan Cliffs tinged with some green vegetation, unusual on the semi-arid north side. A few years ago the Grand Valley Mesa was ignored, she notes, but today barren cutouts on the mesa indicate drilling. To her, the sparse north side is a fragile environment that drilling is destroying. Hines accuses the gas-exploration industry of not "living an ethic of being careful.

"This land," she adds, "has no one to speak for it."

On the narrow, winding gravel roads that link the sparse human settlements and the plethora of wells, a fleet of huge red Halliburton trucks carry crews to operate the machines that pierce the subterranean rock. Hines points out site after site on which well pads are created by clearing away large spaces of natural vegetation.

"The soil in west Garfield County, once it's disturbed, springs noxious weeds," says GVCA member Shirley Willis. "[Developers] knock down trees and cut out shrubs. They don't come back. It takes years."

"When I was out there looking at reclamation work, I felt that a lot of it was really inadequate," says Ed Redente, a professor of rangeland ecosytems at Colorado State University. "It was apparent that higher density was only going to lead to greater problems." Redente says that poor reclamation can lead to erosion, poor vegetation and inadequate habitat for wildlife.

As proof, the GVCA points to a 2000 report prepared by a wildlife biologist stating that increased drilling in Parachute Creek, north of Parachute, has led to a decline in the population of a non-migrating herd of mule deer. The herd at one time represented one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in the state, numbering as high as several thousand. And another study, also completed last year by a San Mateo, California, air-quality laboratory, reported that benzene, a known cancer-causing agent, was detected near a well in Rulison at twice the ambient-air standard.

In addition to the reports, there are plenty of anecdotes about upheaval caused by drilling. The GVCA says it has heard from more than 200 people statewide with complaints. But few can compare to the disruption that began four years ago when Kay and Wendell Goad's water well blew after a gas well exploded almost a mile away.

At first the Goads didn't make the connection to the mining operation. Wendell was heading to work when he came down his driveway and saw it was flooded. He thought the problem was with his water well, so he shut down power to the pump. But water kept coming, and Goad guessed that the source of the trouble was the nearby wells. He called Barrett, whose crew arrived quickly. However, pressure led the gas 4,000 feet underground to the Goad's water well. Gas had leaked into their home as well, and the couple had to move out for several days. For months afterward, they had to keep their windows open and run a fan in the crawl space. Cigarette smoking was banned on the property.

The Goads are still having troubles, even after consulting with three water specialists, who first tried to aerate the soil to get rid of the gas. Then they tried to pump the water out of the well, filter it aboveground and pump it back in. Finally, last year, Barrett paid to drill a line across their property to hook them up to an uncontaminated water source. "It could happen again," says Kay Goad. "Methane gas is odorless and colorless. If that had filtered into our home earlier that evening, we could have woken up dead. Plus, it could have ignited; it could have blown."

Voicing a common position, she says she's not against the drilling. She realizes people own mineral rights and the gas is underneath their land. But, she asks, "Why do we need to get it all out today?"

On a flat plateau up the side of the Roan Cliffs stands a rig. About 100 feet tall and gleaming in blue and white, the 595-ton behemoth is powered by a noisy array of diesel and diesel-electric engines housed in large blue trailers.

As the drill bores 7,000 feet into the earth, a slurry of water and mud is pumped into the ground to flush out "cuttings," tiny pieces of rock and debris that are disposed of in a large pit adjacent to the rig. As the slurry returns to the surface, it is collected in vats -- where its density is gauged -- then pumped back into the hole. Eventually the pit of cuttings will dry up, leaving a shallow, empty bowl of dirt.

The young but weathered crew on this rig is from Vernal, Utah (a few hours northwest of Parachute), and they'll be here for a few weeks. They're extracting gas from sandstone, but sand is layered between stacks of sandstone some several thousand feet thick, so the sand has to be densely drilled. Once a hole is drilled, a well is inserted and encased in concrete to stabilize it. Then, up to a million pounds of a sand-and-fluid mixture are piped down the well. Through tiny holes created in the well itself, the fluid fractures the subterranean sandstone, increasing the surface area of recoverable natural gas. The sand is pumped in to prop up the rock and allow the gas to flow more easily. "Frac-ing," as the process is known, was developed in the '70s and has gradually made getting to natural-gas reservoirs more economical.

It takes between fifteen and 25 days to drill one well, another eighteen to cement the well, and four or five days more to build the pad. Most of the gas Barrett recovers, compressed to 300 pounds per square inch, is transported up Parachute Creek to a large processing facility, where it is chilled to -36 degrees Fahrenheit so that natural liquids such as propane and butane can be extracted. Then the gas is compressed to 800 pounds per square inch and shipped through pipelines across the region and the country.

All in all, it's a good business for Williams and district manager Soychak, who leads a tour of the area in a beefy Ford Expedition. He points out that, in the case of natural gas, part of the nation's energy needs are being met by a domestically produced source. And despite the GVCA's complaints, Soychak says steps to minimize the wells' intrusiveness are in place. Below the giant rig is a flat area just off the highway that is covered with sagebrush and other semi-arid vegetation. Here the wells are barely visible little pipes and valves, not much bigger than the electric meter on the side of your house. The nearby pads are larger - they resemble power boxes -- but the most conspicuous thing about them are the gleaming solar panels tilted toward the sun. Soychak says the panels power sensors that allow wells to be monitored from a central office, cutting down on worker trips into the field. He also notes that the equipment is painted desert tan to blend in.

Soychak thinks the criticism of drilling is overblown. "I think we're doing something right," he says. The company pays taxes in the county, of course, and he estimates that only about twenty wells are closer than 1,000 feet to anyone's home. (Wells have to be at least 350 feet away.) The majority of residents in the area where Williams drills own their surface rights and at least some piece of their mineral rights. Consequently, he says he gets more calls from people who want to work a deal than from people complaining: "Most people want us to drill on their land." He says some want their land cleared and want the access roads. "Most of the old-timers -- folks who grew up here fifty years ago -- don't mind the drilling," he says. He also finds critics a little selfish. After all, he notes, "We are providing energy to the rest of the country."

And Soychak says that the company's reclamation efforts are working: He has seen deer foraging on pads that have been reclaimed. Clough says Barrett has reseeded all the pads on his property. "I'm just tickled as hell with it," he says. "Every pad they've drilled, I've got good grass. Deer come down and winter."

"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.

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."

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."

For her part, Amy Potter has settled into her new home in Battlement Mesa, in an area she describes as more of a subdivision. However, it is one designed with enough open space between homes to accommodate future drilling. And signs of activity abound. There's a site about 1,500 feet from the only elementary school. And across the ravine that forms the rear boundary of her property is a flat empty parcel similarly earmarked for a drill. It's only about a quarter mile from her home, the same distance the wells were from her old place.

As for her old property, Robert Boruch will likely move onto it. He expects to earn more from his wells during winter, when production usually picks up. He's already watching the news and considering the possible implications of the country's brewing war with terrorists in the oil-rich Middle East. He believes that the result could be a renewed interest in oil-shale drilling that will overcome both economic and technical barriers.

"If it comes this time," he says, "there'll be no stopping it."

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T.R. Witcher