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Know the West

Oil wells in my backyard?


DURANGO, Colo. - -Well, in the late 1980s, the kids started lighting the lemonade on fire, so I knew something was going on," says Carl Weston, a resident of southwestern Colorado's La Plata County. Something was also going on miles away at Randy Ferris' house; he was alarmed when his tap water emerged looking like milk and fizzing like Alka-Seltzer.

Both men were outraged once they learned the cause of their troubles: Gas companies were drilling a coal bed rich in methane, causing the gas to seep out of the ground and into water and homes. Ferris says this happened because the industry was careless.

Although the lemonade no longer burns and most methane seeps are under control, Durango locals say the industry can still make life miserable. On a recent tour of the area, Gwen Lachelt, director of the San Juan Citizens' Alliance, points out boarded-up houses and valleys where elk no longer roam. A booming oil and gas industry led to the exodus of people and wildlife, she says: "This really is considered a national sacrifice area by lots of industry, because it's rural, unpopulated, and rich in resources."

The problem has its roots in the Depression era, when the federal government split the property rights above ground from the rights to minerals below in an attempt to distribute the wealth more evenly. Seniority was given to the mineral-rights owner, enabling companies like Amoco to set up noisy drilling rigs in people's backyards and even site an oil well near an elementary school.

Now, Lachelt's alliance wants a moratorium placed on gas development in Colorado, until the state studies the overall impacts of methane drilling. Her organization has been joined by other citizens' groups and county commissioners around the state that feel outgunned by a powerful industry. Together, these groups have targeted the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for reform.

An industry polices itself

La Plata County isn't the only area of Colorado beset by oil and gas development. Jane Hines of Parachute says that methane seeps are causing some plants and crops in Garfield County to fail, and in southeastern Colorado's Las Animas County, local Marianne Reid says that benzene, a proven carcinogen, has been found in unsealed evaporation ponds left by drillers in a "blatant breaking of clean-water act rules." Western Colorado Congress, an activist group with 1,300 members on the Western Slope, lists oil and gas reform legislation as its number-one priority.

"We want a statewide level of expectation that industry will take care of communities," Hines told the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Oversight Committee at a recent hearing in Denver. "We were there to say, "You think you have a policy in place that's working, but it's not," "''''she said later.

The oil and gas commission has seven governor-appointed members responsible for supervising oil and gas development in Colorado. At the same time, they are charged with protecting the interests of private landowners.

By law, the panel must include four employees of the oil and gas industry: a geologist, a geophysicist, a petroleum engineer, and an oil and gas attorney. Critics say that means the industry has the commission in its back pocket.

"Imagine if you were on the (commission) and you had a decision to make between a landowner and the oil and gas industry. You know you have to go back to work tomorrow to work for the industry. What would you do?" asks environmental attorney Travis Stills.

Stills is helping community alliances across western Colorado work on proposed legislation to eliminate any conflict of interest on the conservation commission. They want the panel to include three members with experience in environmental protection and management and one person with a background in land-use planning to balance the industry experts.

Creating co-existence

Rich Griebling, director of the Oil and Gas Commission, calls the proposed legislation "simplistic and misinformed." He says that all commission decisions are subject to judicial review, and that to really change the nature of oil and gas development, "you would need to change the whole legal system that directs the commission."

Griebling adds that the technical expertise required of the panel makes it natural for members to be employed by the industry. Locals can call a toll-free complaint line with urgent problems, he points out, and an environmental expert travels to Durango every few weeks to address concerns. Griebling says he's confident that landowners and industry can "definitely co-exist."

La Plata county commissioner Josh Joswick is looking for a way to make coexistence a little fairer. "The farther away you put power from the problem, the harder it is to acknowledge that there is a problem and do something about it," says Joswick, who supports the proposed legislation. "We're not trying to preclude the Oil and Gas Commission from doing a job, but I think we have a role here, too. I don't know diddley about what you do with a pump jack, but I do know the impacts drilling has on surface estates."

This summer, a group of Colorado representatives may visit La Plata Co. to look at the development first hand. State Sen. Gigi Dennis, R-Pueblo West, hopes this visit could show them what is really going on.

In the meantime, Griebling's commission will monitor wells in La Plata County to see what impacts drilling is having on private land. Oil and gas companies plan to add 750 more wells in La Plata County this year, to the already existing 2,000.

* Rebecca Clarren, HCN intern

You can contact ...

* San Juan Citizens' Alliance: 970/259-3583, e-mail: glachelt @fone.net;

* Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: 303/894-2100, www.dnr.state.co.us/oil-gas;

* La Plata County Commissioner Josh Joswick: 1060 E. 2nd Ave, Durango, CO 81310 970/382-6217, or e-mail: [email protected]