Gas Pains

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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.

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T.R. Witcher