He did tell me I could stay in touch with the companies and regulatory agencies involved with the property, because although lease agreements haven’t changed, the regulatory environment has. If I visited my wells regularly and understood the minutiae of local regulations, I could, perhaps, moonlight as a citizen surface inspector for the sorely understaffed Bureau of Land Management, calling in reports of leaky wells and holding ponds, as Tweeti Blancett did for many years, with little success. I could do nothing, however, about the cumulative effect of all the wells, roads and pipelines that have gone in, and will go in, on the Blancetts’ ranch. Mineral leases are a federal right, explained Dave Mankiewicz, a petroleum geologist and field manager with the BLM, and once the lease is issued, there’s very little you can do to stand in its way. "There’s an impact, and we try to minimize the impact, but it’s hard," he said.
As a last-ditch effort, I contacted Randy Udall, an energy and conservation guru with Aspen’s Community Office for Resource Efficiency. He agreed with my chorus of naysayers: The gas is going to be produced, and there’s not much I can do about that. Instead, I can redirect my energies. "You could do as a Mormon might and tithe 10 percent of your royalties to a noble cause," he said. "These are all major corporations. You could sell your royalty interest and buy shares and go hold up placards at meetings. You could buy shares in solar companies or wind companies. Or you could take a vow of energy poverty." No, the measures wouldn’t nullify my role as a "methane floozy," as Udall took to calling me, but at least they’re in the realm of the possible.
The day after I met with Tweeti Blancett, I drove into nearby Farmington, which was an agricultural settlement before the El Paso pipeline arrived in 1951 and the town’s population grew from 3,600 to nearly 24,000 in a decade. Today, it’s a blue-collar community of rigs and roughnecks. Big trucks barrel down every side street and country road. There are 250 wells within the city limits. In the Yellow Pages, the entry under "oil" runs 15 pages — oilfield service companies, manufacturers, wholesalers. It’s a place where Halliburton — which occupies a modest, low-slung group of buildings on Farmington’s main drag — is a local business, not a dirty word.
I had an appointment at the headquarters of ConocoPhillips, a gleaming, fortified building on the edge of a residential neighborhood. John Zent ushered me into his office and gave me a list of my wells by name and number and a history of the leases, which changed owners eight times between 1948, when my grandmother bought them, and today. Many of the wells went into the ground in the 1950s, after the construction of the El Paso pipeline; others were drilled after the Arab oil embargo of 1973 and the ensuing energy crisis; another large batch was stubbed in the early 1990s, when the coalbed methane tax credit went into effect.
Zent told me that in the years since my grandmother first bought her leases, the environmental management of the gas field has improved continuously. This much is true: There is certainly more oversight than when the early wells went in. States and counties now demand far more careful drilling practices, requiring, for instance, that producers dispose of wastewater and reseed drilling sites. The files for my older wells contain a one-page approval — no stipulations, just drill. The applications for the later wells, such as those drilled in the ’90s, are ten times as thick. "The way we operated in the ’70s and ’80s isn’t sufficient today," said Zent.
But could the producers do better? Zent believes that one reason we hear more complaints now is because of a different "surface owner component" than there was in the ’40s and ’50s. "Back then, they were mostly large ranchers; now it’s all small ranchettes" — subdivisions in the middle of gas fields and residents who aren’t accustomed to oil rigs in their backyard. In response to that new surface owner component, some producers have, in recent years, voluntarily begun to work with locals and environmental groups to incorporate lower-impact practices, from installing emissions-control equipment and noise-reduction technologies to reducing the size of well pads to "green completion" procedures to drilling multiple wells from a single well pad by using more expensive "horizontal" drilling techniques. The only reason all producers don’t use these technologies, said Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which fights for better regulation of the gas industry and "best practices" at well pads in the Rockies, is because "they don’t have to yet."
There are limits to these technologies, however; horizontal drilling, for instance, which is perhaps the most promising way to halt the proliferation of new drilling sites, can only work in certain locations and at certain distances. And, says David Fleischaker, who is Oklahoma’s secretary of energy and a third-generation oil and gas producer, "It’s always more expensive. Whether it’s justified depends upon a number of factors," including the type and permeability of the formation, current natural gas prices and mineral ownership. Whether other technologies are too expensive to merit consideration depends on where you are and whom you’re dealing with. "Even within a basin," says Fleischaker, "and certainly as you move from basin to basin, issues vary dramatically, and costs to address those issues also vary."
Fleischaker notes that larger, deep-pocketed companies and longtime producers with reputations to uphold tend to be more inclined to spend the money to voluntarily address environmental issues than some smaller companies. But Tom Dugan — a thickset, unapologetic, independent driller and author of a history of the San Juan Basin gas industry — told me that the economics of his business preclude such measures. Dugan names many of his wells after dead rock stars, but some refer to lesser celebrities: The "Nordhaus" wells, for instance, were named after my grandfather, who sold his interest in them years ago. I asked Dugan if he thought producers could do a better job. He looked at me suspiciously. "You like that check every month, don’t you?" he said. "We’re jumping through all sorts of hoops. Someday it will cost more to drill a well than the gas you get from it."
But that certainly hasn’t happened yet, if my royalties are any evidence.