One Colorado county takes a stand

by Robyn Morrison

Note: This is a sidebar to a main story headlined "Backlash."

HOTCHKISS, Colo. - "Not a drop of water runs off of this place," says Steve Ela, looking out over his 112-acre orchard, where tiny sprinklers mist beneath a canopy of apple trees. The irrigation system that diverts ditch water to soak half the orchard is about as efficient as it gets, says Ela. Even so, with western Colorado's ditches running nearly dry this summer, "we're just going to get by."

But a plan by Denver-based Gunnison Energy Corp. to drill five exploratory coalbed methane wells on the highlands above the orchard has Ela worried about more than drought. If successful, the project could punch more than 600 methane wells on 96,000 acres of both private and U.S. Forest Service lands along the south flank of 11,000-foot Grand Mesa, where snowmelt gathers and flows down through lower mesas to the Gunnison River.

Ela worries that fracturing the coal seams and pumping out groundwater - the method used to extract methane - could dry up aquifers and drain away water that residents depend on for drinking and irrigation. And like many others in this rural valley, where fourth-generation ranchers share fences with the likes of 1960s rocker Joe Cocker and the Chaco sport-sandal factory, Ela has turned to his local government leaders for help.

"They're the only ones willing to protect us," he says.

In May, the Delta County Board of Commissioners bought itself some time to study the situation. Usually more comfortable with approving salvage yards and gravel pits than with passing regulations, the board imposed a nine-month moratorium on any oil and gas projects beyond the five test wells. Then, in July, the county commissioners voted 2-1 to deny four of the test wells, and tagged 33 conditions to the approval of the fifth.

The company already had state permits to drill, issued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. In rejecting the four wells, the local government walked into uncharted territory: No Colorado county has ever challenged the state agency so directly.

Knowing that the company would probably drag Delta County to court, Ela and several dozen other Delta County residents, along with local water companies and the county commissioners, took the offensive. They sued Aug. 2, charging that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Gunnison Energy violated citizens' rights to due process and ignored local sentiment.

The lawsuit goes beyond battling over who has the ultimate authority; it gets to the heart of the state's responsibility to listen to the locals, says Michael McCarthy, the attorney handling the case. "You'd think that since the Oil and Gas Commission believes they pre-empt everything, they'd want to hear what the county has to say about health, safety and welfare."

Strange bedfellows

Delta County might not seem like a place ready to go head-to-head with the state and industry. Although retiring baby-boomers and urban telecommuters are moving in, the county remains one of the poorest in the state. Politically conservative, with no zoning and only bare-bones land-use regulations, Delta County puts a high value on property rights.

It also has a hundred-year history of coal mining (HCN, 8/31/00:Out of the darkness). Today, three mines ship about 15 million tons of coal annually. One of those mines is owned by the parent company of Gunnison Energy, Florida-based Oxbow Corp.

But the mining here is underground, while methane development would be painfully visible. Fears of polluted water, noisy pumps and a maze of roads and pipelines galvanized hundreds of residents - from dreadlocked communal farmers to former energy industry executives. Members of the local environmental group, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, organized a disparate group of concerned citizens who created a grassroots group, the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance.

"We're aligned with a very strange set of bedfellows," said Larry Jensen, a former mine engineer turned rancher who owns grazing land near one of the proposed well sites. "But we all have a common goal." Even the county Board of Realtors joined the opposition.

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