It's gut check time for a conservative Western Colorado county
The county that has been home to High Country News for the last 19 years has reached a decisive moment. For the last few decades, residents of 1,149-square-mile Delta County have chosen a live-and-let-live approach to land use. Outside of the towns, we have no zoning, no building codes, and a toothless master plan.
Any tendency toward control is quickly quashed by a vociferous private-property movement, which is louder and more passionate than pro-regulation residents.
As a result, the county's destiny has seemed clear for many years: newcomer-driven residential development and growing sprawl and congestion. Jobs in ranching, mining and logging are few and growing fewer. Agriculture means a few ranches, some new vineyards, home gardens and a diminishing number of orchards. In the place of agriculture, we have retirees. And commuters heading to well-paying jobs in Grand Junction, 40 to 70 miles away, and Aspen, 100 miles and a mountain pass away. It's the new rural West.
The direction was reaffirmed this winter, when the three county commissioners abetted construction of a pre-fab building construction company, allowing the low-wage-paying company to locate on the best and most publicly visible farmland in the county. They did it without a hearing, and by waiving various rules and regulations. Most residents in this 33,000-person county probably approved. Better $8/hour in a Delta County job than $10 or $12 at the end of a commute.
Now the county's move toward a sprawling future and rising real estate values has been interrupted by Gunnison Energy, a two-man firm that owns 90,000 acres of gas leases, 85 percent of it on public land. It recently asked the county commissioners for permission to drill five wells to test how much gas there is, and how much water would have to be pumped out to get that gas to flow.
The commissioners fast-tracked approval, which doesn't leave time for much study. The 1993 environmental impact statement on which the federal permits were based barely mentions coalbed methane. It is full speed ahead into the darkness.
At the first public meeting, in Cedaredge, the commissioners exuded confidence that any problems could be dealt with. Commissioner Ted Hayden told the crowd that Delta County is blessed with a company that intends to do things right, so stories about the horrors of CBM from other places are irrelevant.
Less than a month later, a subdued Hayden, looking as if he had been to hell and back, stood before a much larger crowd in Paonia, the east end of the lease holds, to announce a nine-month moratorium on applications for coalbed methane development. It was a shocking political turn-around, but it barely fazed the crowd. The several hundred people spent the next three hours condemning the proposal in three-minute speeches, and asking the company's representative, Tony Gale, questions like: "Where do you live, and where is the closest gas well to your home?"
Coalbed methane turns neighborhoods into outdoor industrial sites, with wells, compressor stations, scars from buried pipelines, and access roads. Even at one well per 160 acres, which Gunnison Energy is talking about, rather than the one well per 40 to 80 acres that is common, CBM is scorched-earth land use.
But it is legal. The firm's property rights are at least as strong as the property rights of the surface owner. Those who own a ranch or subdivision plot on the surface may resent a well or compressor station on their property, but from the gas company's point of view, we surface users have chosen to conduct our lives so as to interfere with their just-as-valid underground rights.
Put aside the environmental implications of coalbed methane, and you are left with the core American, Western issue: clashing, incompatible property rights - surface versus mineral versus water.
There is a saying among businessmen that money talks and bullshit walks. So far, at the various public meetings, there has been an enormous amount of talk, much of it heartfelt and sincere and having little to do with money.
But fervent talk won't mean much if the county commissioners are faced with a lawsuit that could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Talk won't mean much if the county has to hire expensive lobbyists to counter the industry's lobbying in the state Legislature, or before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Delta County is one of Colorado's poorest counties, but it will have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire attorneys, hydrologists, and economists. The money is there. There are 8,500 households in the two affected valleys. Most of them stand to lose thousands of dollars each in property values. If each household put up only $100, there would be an $850,000 war chest.
But that won't happen voluntarily. So it will be interesting to see if residents can conquer their traditional anti-government, anti-taxing beliefs to defend the land collectively.
The property-rights people have already shown the way toward political change. None of them has said a word in public about the gas company's property rights. All attention is on the surface owners' rights.
Environmentalists have also shed a core belief. We distrust local government and trust the federal government. Across the West, environmental groups have fought county attempts to control local federal lands. But in Delta County, the feds have already sold us out with their leases. So environmentalists at the meeting repeatedly urged the county to take as much control of gas drilling on the public land as possible. Of course, we said to each other, we want the county to have the power to control what happens on the federal land.
Ideologies are fair-weather friends. When life gets real, you do what you have to do. We will see if life has gotten real enough to convince this anti-government, anti-collective Western county to pass a mill levy to defend itself.