Energy companies are drilling holes straight through efforts to preserve open space on Colorado’s Front Range. Boulder County has saved about 76,000 acres from development by buying property and creating conservation easements. However, the county doesn’t always control the mineral rights underneath that land — which leaves the surface property open to drilling.

Previous landowners have sometimes held on to their mineral rights, or sold them, explains Jan Burns, Boulder County Parks and Open Space land-acquisition manager. In some cases, the county has been able to buy the mineral rights, but they’re subject to prior leases. So when energy companies move in, the county can only try to minimize impacts by controlling the location of wells, storage tanks and roads.

Boulder County is in the process of approving up to 12 drilling permits on open space — a significant increase from previous years. EnCana Oil & Gas Co. is negotiating to place a gas well on one of the county’s conservation easements; company spokesman Doug Hock says it’s the first time in Colorado that EnCana has drilled within a conservation easement.

Boulder has worked hard to protect its open spaces, says Pete Kolbenschlag of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which is why people and businesses like the area (HCN, 12/6/04: A problem any city would love to have). Locals will get fired up when development begins, he predicts: "The increase in truck traffic, loss of air quality, bright lights — all those things are going to impact people’s quality of living."

Elise Jones, executive director of the coalition, says, "If you can drill on open spaces in Boulder County, the nothing is safe."