Gas Pains

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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.

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T.R. Witcher