Fury on the frontier of energy drilling
RIFLE, COLO. — 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.
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.
This time around, with new land-use plans being written for many federal lands, environmentalists are criticizing what they see as "push all permits through as quickly as possible" instructions to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"The magnitude of drilling the administration is preparing for is unprecedented on public lands," says Dave Alberswerth, the BLM program director for the Wilderness Society. "What's significant is that the environmental safeguards on public lands have been drastically reduced."
Some drilling is appropriate, most people concede, but they tick off areas that should be off-limits: the Powder River basin in Wyoming, the Rocky Mountain front in Montana, the Otera Mesa in New Mexico, the Book Cliffs in Utah. Or, here in Garfield County, the Roan Plateau.
"When you fly around the world like I do, there are very few times you look down and don't see a network of roads everywhere," says Bruce Gordon, who runs EcoFlight, a charter plane service out of Aspen. "I fly airplanes, I need oil and gas, but there are some special places on this planet."
From above, the top of the plateau is a mix of deep canyons and hills, with large groves of aspen and pine mixed in with sagebrush and juniper. It's one of Colorado's most biologically diverse regions, with a particularly pure strain of cutthroat trout, large herds of elk and deer, and a variety of the penstemon plant that grows nowhere else.
Even many who aren't environmentalists have rallied around efforts to stave off drilling on top of the plateau. An alternative plan many suggest would allow drilling on the sides, but not the top - which the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) says isn't economically feasible.
The local BLM office calls the furor premature. Its draft plan for the plateau has been delayed by Washington, but associate field manager Steve Bennett says he hopes people will be pleased with the alternatives. "We have restrictive management practices to protect those wilderness characteristics," he says. "There is still one alternative that is very much on the protective side."
The controversy around drilling is familiar, says Greg Schnake, an executive vice president at COGA. But he sees it as simply "not-in-my-backyard" politics. "People build next to airports and then complain about the noise. They want cellphone service but not the towers." Environmentalists, he says, prefer natural gas-powered electricity to coal or nuclear power, but don't want the drilling.
But the local opposition is rooted in economics as much as aesthetics. Residents here still remember "Black Sunday" in 1982, when Exxon Corp. closed its oil-shale development and 2,000 jobs were lost. The value of the Bells's ranch was halved overnight. Energy in the west is a boom-bust business by nature, and some residents wonder if it isn't wiser to rely on more constant, long-term income streams like recreation - an industry that's been steadily growing. What will happen, they wonder, 20 years from now, when the gas companies leave but the landscape is scarred.
"I've seen oil shale go bust, uranium go bust, hard rock go bust," says Keith Goddard, who runs Magum Outfitters in Rifle, and worries how drilling on the Roan will affect his business. "The bottom line is, when they go bust, you still have recreation. [Gas drilling] is a short-term resource."
Not everyone agrees.
Jerry Fazzi, a weathered rancher who's lived here his whole life, figures the drilling does a lot less damage than the housing development springing up all over the county. "I can live with the gas well up there," he says, pointing just north of his house. "But if there's a house up there... That's what hurts ranching." Recently, he notes, the ranch next to him was sold for the mineral rights, and will be chopped up into small "ranchettes."
He worries about his water, he says, and he's not thrilled with the noise. "But they act like the gas companies are totally destroying this valley, and they haven't. It'd be nice if they'd leave, but also if all of the tourists would leave."