Fury on the frontier of energy drilling
In the Western battle against gas and oil drillers, Garland Anderson is an unlikely flag bearer. After all, he spent 20 years doing offshore exploration for such companies and laughs at the notion of himself as an environmentalist.Skip to next paragraph
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But from his 80-acre ranch atop the Grass Mesa, where he and his wife - and their cows, horses, goats, and cats - enjoy nearly 360-degree views, Mr. Anderson has been dismayed by the damage he's seen drillers wreak in his corner of the Rockies. Since the gas companies stepped up activity in the past few years, he's seen a steady fleet of trucks and rigs wind their way up his rocky mesa through sagebrush and juniper, accompanied by noise, dust, and fumes. The wildlife, he says, has largely left. Soon he'll have a well a few hundred yards from his small white house.
"We moved out here to be away from all that, and now we turn out to be right in the middle of an industrial development," Anderson says.
Welcome to "Ground Zero" in the new battle over oil and gas drilling. While this region has always been valued as much for what lies below the surface as for the Rockies' soaring peaks and grand vistas, a combination of high energy prices and one of the most pro-energy-development White Houses in decades has brought the war to a new pitch, and forged some unlikely alliances in the process.
While production in most of America's natural-gas reserves is flat or declining, the majority of reserves here - an estimated 383 trillion cubic feet - remain untapped, and new drilling leases are being issued at a rapid pace. Colorado expects to grant some 2,500 leases this year - more than double the number of a few years ago and an increase even over the 1981 record of 2,378.
Here in Garfield County, mining and drilling have come and gone - oil shale, coal, uranium. And even the most ardent opponents of the current activity insist they're not against drilling.
Some, in fact, welcome the activity, pointing to the tax revenue, jobs, and other business it brings in. But others are adamantly opposed. And an alliance of environmentalists, ranchers, sportsmen, and landowners - a group that seems to cross all philosophical viewpoints and political partisanship - is springing up to fight.
"You get tree-hugging members of PETA standing toe to toe with conservative ranchers," says Duke Cox, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Rifle. "This is a community problem."
The reasons for opposition vary. Much of the landowner resistance is toward private-land drilling. In the West, many properties fall in a "split estate" category, where one owns the surface land but not the mineral rights. As a result, gas companies can get leases and drill wells on land even if owners are opposed. Landowners worry about falling property values or the effects on aquifers when saline water is removed. And they are often dismayed at drilling's noise and smells.
Carol and Orlyn Bell, who raise hay and keep horses on their 110-acre ranch just south of Silt, Colo., once counted 42 semis on the quiet dirt road that cuts through their land. They point down the hill to six or seven wells, one of which gives off a high yellow flame. In January, the separator in a well a few hundred yards from their home blew up, covering the fields around it with paraffin wax. Last year, their neighbors' horses were cut up when the wells' sudden noises made them bolt through the fence.
Still, the Bells say they realize the gas company has a right to drill on their land, and they're willing to compromise. What they don't want to see is drilling on top of the Roan Plateau, the huge, mostly untouched land that rises 3,000 feet above Rifle and is this county's most treasured wilderness.
That's the other half of the drilling debate in the Rockies, where nearly half the land belongs to the government. Resistance to public-land drilling has been fiercer than normal, in part because so many previously untouched lands are being considered for new leases. Some call the Bush White House the most pro-drilling administration since the 1980s, when huge tracts of land were leased under Secretary of the Interior James Watt - a process that grew so fraudulent that Congress eventually passed legislation to rein in sales.