Citizens unite against gas field chaos

Group meets company halfway to deal with natural gas impacts

  • As the natural gas boom bears down on western Colorado's growing sprawl of rural homes, landowners are organizing to protect themselves.

    AP World Wide
 

SILT, Colorado — When Peggy and Bob Utesch moved to the sage-dotted hills of Garfield County in 2000, they thought they had found paradise. But after only three years, companies had drilled 30 natural gas wells within a mile of their home, a neighbor’s water well had been fouled, and the air was choked with fumes. Fed up, they moved to a nearby subdivision where the mineral rights can’t be sold or developed.

Today, Peggy Utesch parks in front of her old place and points out the homes of former neighbors who also sold out and fled. "It doesn’t have to be this way," says Utesch, who has spearheaded the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance’s efforts to protect local landowners from gas development. Industry, she says, makes enough money to "do this in a way that everybody comes out okay."

Gas companies have hit Garfield County hard over the past six years, and plan to step up development even more. Meanwhile, many landowners aren’t getting the protection they want from the federal or state government (HCN, 3/7/05: Drilling Could Wake a Sleeping Giant). State legislation meant to soften impacts has repeatedly buckled under industry pressure, and the primary regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, lacks the staff to enforce existing rules.

Some counties have tried to regulate energy development on their own. But court battles have made that process slow and expensive, and Garfield County has been reluctant to follow suit. Frustrated with the regulatory vacuum, Garfield’s citizens are banding together to negotiate landowner protections with industry before more drilling gets underway.

A local agreement

In 2004, the gas company Antero Resources announced plans to develop several hundred wells in the still-undrilled area between Rifle and New Castle, near the Uteschs’ former home.

Typically, landowners work out individual land-use agreements with gas companies. But Utesch says that’s "like being asked to play a complicated board game" without knowing the rules. Eager to head off problems, members of Grand Valley Citizens Alliance began negotiating a plan of development for the area with Antero’s vice president of production, Terry Dobkins.

That plan, finalized last fall, capitalizes on the recommendations of lawyers, watchdog groups and county officials from around the state. It schedules meetings for the company and community members, gives neighborhoods a say in drilling plans, and provides a template for individual land-use agreements.

Antero has agreed to alleviate the worst impacts of gas extraction by drilling multiple wells from each pad, putting in no more than one pad per 160 acres, and monitoring well and irrigation water quality. "Closed loop" drilling systems, which contain waste fluids in tanks instead of open pits, will cost the company an extra $30,000 to $50,000 per well — an expense that Dobkins says is "worth it in order to prevent problems with the community."

Citizen vigilance fills gaps

"Conflicts do cost companies money," says attorney Bruce Baizel of the Durango, Colo.-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and companies are willing to spend money to avoid them. But the new community development plan has one big shortcoming: It’s not legally binding.

Gwen Lachelt, the Project’s director, says that’s a problem because some companies won’t sign on, some won’t act in good faith, and bigger companies may rely on hundreds of contractors, making enforcement difficult. "It needs to be taken a step further and written into law," she says.

Still, gas companies like Antero increasingly worry about their local reputation. The energy giant EnCana, for example, is considering a similar community agreement in Garfield County. Two years ago, an EnCana well leaked benzene-tainted gas into a local creek. "We learned some lessons from that," says spokesman Doug Hock, who cites the accident as a turning point in the company’s dealings with landowners. Other communities are also taking note. The nearby city of Grand Junction may use the plan as a model when gas development hits the city’s watershed.

Though some local governments have made headway controlling the impacts of gas development, Baizel says, "it’s only around the margins that they can regulate," because state law reserves that authority for the oil and gas commission. In the meantime, says Utesch, citizen vigilance can help "fill in the gaps" that allow companies to skirt existing regulations.

"It’s gotten to the point where we really see (plans like) this as the only option left to landowners," says Matt Sura of the environmental group Western Colorado Congress. Otherwise, he says, "they have nothing."

The author is an HCN intern.

Note: a sidebar article, "City makes desperate bid for watershed," accompanies this story.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Native plant seeds for the Western US. Trees, shrubs, grasses, wildflowers and regional mixes. Call or email for free price list. 719-942-3935. [email protected] or visit...
  • THE LAND DESK: A PUBLIC LANDS NEWSLETTER
    Western lands and communities--in context--delivered to your inbox 3x/week. From award-winning journalist and HCN contributor Jonathan P. Thompson. $6/month; $60/year.