Gas Pains

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"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.

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T.R. Witcher