HCN: What will this landscape look like when you quadruple the activity?
Sanford: I won't lie; this is an industrial operation. The land won't be what you’re seeing today. But in 50 years (when the gas play is over and the land is reclaimed), I see this place looking very much like it does now.
HCN: Are you surprised about the growing antipathy across the country toward gas development?
Sanford: The reaction to gas has changed a lot in the past five years. For a while, it was seen by environmentalists as the bridge to a renewable future. That was good, as long as it was a short bridge. But now with the new technology -- fracking and horizontal drilling -- uncovering a much bigger resource, the bridge seems long, maybe many decades long. This creates a different kind of opponent, more like the one opposing coal and oil.
HCN: Does the public get enough benefit from mineral development on public lands?
Sanford: Absolutely. The minerals dug out today go into the federal treasury in the form of royalties. Coal companies provide $37 million in taxes for the Western Slope. Oil and gas could potentially dwarf this amount.
HCN: But your boss (Russell Gordy) is a billionaire and one of the biggest landowners in the country -- this isn't just about public benefit.
Sanford: The only reason we are in business is to make a profit. But we also believe it can be done responsibly. I was at a county commissioners’ meeting in Gunnison and a young teenager with a white rose on his shirt lay on the floor at the front of the room. Whenever I spoke, he'd mutter, "Greed!" I told the crowd, "This young man is right. We're in this business to make money." Does oil and gas make too much money? This is a very risky business. You can spend $5 million on a dry hole.
HCN: Can you point to a place where the oil and gas industry and small communities successfully cohabitate?
Sanford: I look to (Colorado's) LaPlata County, which has lived with oil and gas industry since the 1950s. The population has quadrupled there, alongside plenty of oil and gas development. Some people complain, but others point to the new schools and library that were built with industry money. Everyone has learned to get along.
HCN: SG Interests was recently under investigation by the Department of Justice for potentially colluding with another gas company – Gunnison Energy – to artificially lower the price it paid for federal leases in this area. The company has agreed to pay the federal government hundreds of thousands of dollars. Can you tell us about the case?
Sanford: This issue has not been accurately reported. It was not collusion or a fine, as the press has reported, but a settlement. After seven years, we thought it was best to put this behind us. But you'd need to talk to our Vice president.
HCN: What do you think of Tim DeChristopher, the jailed Utah activist who intentionally bid up federal oil and leases near Canyonlands National Park without intending to pay for them?
Sanford: I guess he wanted to be a martyr, and he got it. I wrote a letter to the Telluride paper after it ran a story comparing him to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Those folks didn't hide who they were, like he did at that auction. What if I were to go to a federal auction and screw up a solar power or geothermal bid? Would that be OK?
HCN: Do you have any regrets about going to work for the industry?
Sanford: Friends have asked me how I could sell my soul. But I really enjoy this work and this landscape. I've been spit on by opponents, but I don't view what we're doing in a negative light.