A former energy company lawyer now fights for the other side

  • A pumpjack next to homes in Niwot, Colorado, April 2009.

    Wendy Bristol, Red Rock Pictures
  • Production photo of Lance Astrella from the set of Split Estate.

    Red Rock Pictures
 

In the 1990s, oil and gas was booming, and industry attorney Lance Astrella had it all: a thriving practice, a plump paycheck and a reputation as one of the best in the business. Then one night, disturbed by rumors of drillers trashing private property, he attended a community meeting in Denver. One by one, people stood up and told heartbreaking tales of contaminated land and respiratory and other health problems, all of which they blamed on the very industry he represented.

Around the same time, Astrella noticed another distressing trend: Oil and gas companies were ignoring new technologies that could lessen their environmental impacts. He had been sure, for example, that an efficient drilling system that didn't require open waste fluid pits -- which can spill harmful chemicals into the air and water -- would become the norm. It didn't. Even when such practices saved money, says Astrella, many companies avoided them out of the fear that voluntarily embracing greener methods would increase the likelihood of stricter regulations.

So Astrella defected. "I think when you get older, you become more concerned with what's going to affect the world in the long term," he says. He believed that win-win solutions were out there, and he intended to push companies to use them.

For more than a decade now, Astrella, a compact man with a salt-and-pepper mustache, alert hazel eyes and a gentlemanly demeanor, has represented landowners who have oil and gas companies at their doorsteps. His clients range from ranchers to municipalities, and include environmental groups pushing for better regulations and mineral owners looking to secure the fairest drilling deal.

Folks facing energy development often find themselves caught in the uncomfortable zone where history and laws collide with modern values. Under nearly century-old federal statutes, land and underlying mineral rights were often distributed and sold separately. Even though the West's population has ballooned in recent decades, companies that lease the minerals beneath once-empty spaces still have a legal right to drill -- leaving landowners with little power to protect their property.

Astrella is working to change that. In 2007, he helped write the state's surface-owner protection law, which allows landowners to require that oil and gas operators use state-of-art technologies to minimize damage and pollution -- and gives them the option to sue if companies don't comply.  At least 10 states now have such laws. That same year, he was named one of Colorado's "super lawyers" by Super Lawyers Magazine, which picks the attorneys rated highest by peers and independent research.

Astrella also worked on New Mexico's groundbreaking pit rule, which features strict requirements for handling drilling waste, and he helped orchestrate recent reforms to Colorado's oil and gas regulatory commission, which gave landowners and public-health advocates a seat at the table alongside industry representatives.

Astrella, who got a bachelor's degree in chemistry and economics before going to law school, works from a mysteriously clutter-free desk in a 16th-floor corner office with commanding views of downtown Denver. The place is filled with totems of his other great passion: Astrella is a sixth-degree black belt in karate. There's a samurai sword, calligraphy paintings, and a woodblock print that the mayor of Fukuoka gave to Astrella's father, a former Army Corps of Engineers official who helped rebuild Japan after World War II.

During    his    typical    11-to-16-hour workday, Astrella may argue in court, talk on the phone with concerned landowners, discuss a case's merits with industry consultants, try to secure safeguards in drilling agreements or confer with other attorneys in oil and gas hotspots across the country. One recent Friday, he spent the afternoon advising a team of attorneys representing landowners atop New York and Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, the latest gas reserve to make headlines.

Astrella knows that successful negotiation requires keeping clients focused on priorities, rather than chasing everything on their wish list, says Carrie Daggett, deputy city attorney for the city of Fort Collins, Colo. The city hired him to help make sure wildlife habitat and other values are protected if energy companies proceed with plans to drill on 50,000 acres of municipal open space. Astrella, Daggett says, helped Fort Collins understand the importance of "not trying to win a battle that's going to result in losing the war."

The most frustrating cases, Astrella says, are those involving people who have developed health problems after living with oil and gas development. "You'd like to see them compensated, but it's so hard to prove that connection," he says. "But eventually the science will catch up."

And after decades of prodding, "the dark side," as Astrella jokingly refers to the industry, may be finally beginning to see the light. "If it can be shown there's a better way to do things, because of the effectiveness of the grassroots movement, I think that the industry has to pay attention," he says. More companies are employing directional drilling, for example, which allows them to cluster wells in smaller spaces and thus chew up less ground. "They're sensitive to their image, and they're a lot more careful than they used to be."