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.

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