On this rangeland, all is not wells

In some parts of the West, new gas-drilling method stirs water-quality concerns.

From his back porch, Larry Jensen surveys a view of freshly shorn hay fields, grazing cattle, and the etched peaks of the West Elk Mountains. "This ranch is my kids' legacy," he says emphatically. "I don't take their future and what I'm leaving to them lightly."

The cattle rancher is discussing a proposed natural-gas development that he and most residents in this sparsely populated county believe threatens their livelihood and way of life.

In fact, for all the pastoral calm of Jensen's rangeland, this valley is at the center of one of the biggest environmental controversies in the Rocky Mountains.

The conflict is over new drilling methods that promise abundant fuel but could also deplete and contaminate water supplies. The opposition here will test whether county governments can successfully challenge state authorities to determine whether drilling goes forward.

In an unusual move last month, Delta County regulators denied drilling permits for four of five proposed gas wells, despite the state's prior approval. The county also imposed a moratorium on drilling, pending further study of impacts on the water supply. That sets the stage for a legal battle with the state, which oversees drilling within its borders.

"There's really a gray area in there that needs to be cleared up," says Delta County Commissioner Jim Ventrello, who opposed all five test wells. The question is particularly salient for Delta County, he says, because damage to the underground aquifer could be devastating here. "You're talking about the municipal water systems for this county, not just individual wells."

The Delta County battle could have ripple effects throughout the interior West, where a growing number of communities from Gillette, Wyo., to Farmington, N.M., are attempting to thwart so-called "coalbed methane" production.

Recently, for example, officials in Gallatin County, Mont., and Gunnison County, Colo., issued moratoriums on coalbed methane drilling.

At issue is an extraction method that involves pumping out vast amounts of water in order to fracture underground coal seams and release trapped methane – a form of natural gas.

The pumped water – some 20,000 gallons per day per well – may be highly saline and hard to dispose of. The process carries a risk that methane will seep into aquifers that supply drinking water.

"On one hand, I agree that we need oil and gas development in this nation," says Jensen, a former coal-mine engineer, and self-described committed Republican. "But we need to do it with a plan and a conscience. This is a new industry that's unmonitored on a national basis."

HERE in Delta County, coal mining has been integral to the economy for more than 100 years. Today, the county's population of 28,000 includes a mix of ranchers, fruit growers, business owners, coal miners and retirees. Yet a shared trait of residents is their deep connection to the land. Here, traffic pulls aside to make way for cattle drives down the state highway. And dust-covered pickup trucks display bumper stickers that declare, "No Gas Wells in Delta County."

The emotionally charged battle here began last winter when Gunnison Energy Corp. approached county planners about drilling five methane test wells. The company holds mineral leases on nearly 100,000 acres on the flanks of Grand Mesa, where it hopes to develop some 600 wells. Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world, is the principal watershed for the county's water.

Although the state oil and gas commission is charged with issuing drilling permits, counties also may require a permit. Now, given the county's opposition to drilling, what's uncertain is how far a county's authority extends – and if state approval may supersede a local decision. The state has never denied a permit.

The latest development came just over a week ago, when the recently formed Grand Mesa Citizens' Alliance sued the state oil and gas commission, claiming a breach of due process when the state rejected its request for a hearing.

Tony Gale, a vice president of Gunnison Energy, says the wells would pump tax revenues into the community. "We believe we can develop this in a way that can benefit the county, us, and the people of our country from a gas-supply standpoint."

But a recent Delta County poll found that 95 percent of residents oppose gas development here. One complication is that the federal government reserved mineral rights on some lands settled under homesteading laws. Consequently, energy companies may hold mineral rights, while the surface land is privately owned.

That's the case with Larry Jensen's land: Last year he learned that Gunnison Energy had obtained the lease on mineral rights under his 1,200-acre spring grazing parcel. Now, he worries that drilling may dry up the springs that water his cattle, and the wells that supply his domestic water. "They have a constitutional right [to drill]," he says. "But how about my rights?"

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