An energy boom in Silt, Colo., for better and worse

Lloyd and Rita Jane Moore have a long list of grievances against the gas companies that have been drilling on their land for the past five years.

An access road cuts through their pasture, making it impossible to irrigate the field. The waste tanks leak, the promised "reclamation" has yielded nothing but weeds, and the trucks and drills create a constant drone of noise. Perhaps worst of all, their well ran dry.

"The sight, sound, noise, and odor pollution will last for 20 to 40 years," says Mrs. Moore. "When we moved from Mead [Colo.] to here we got more land and we thought we'd sell this place later and retire.... How are we going to sell the place with no water?"

Unlike some buyers, the Moores knew when they bought their 37 acres in 1993 that they didn't own the mineral rights - a common situation in the West known as a "split estate." But no one had drilled gas for years.

Now, nearly 3,000 wells are operating in Garfield County, most of them drilled in the past six years, with thousands more planned. And opposition is building among an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, conservative property-rights advocates, ranchers, county commissioners, and mayors. It's a sign that the West no longer embraces energy booms the way it used to.

"I've never seen it like this," says Pete Kolbenschlag, the western slope field director for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Conservationists have been concerned about these things for any number of years, but now it's all sorts of people."

The reasons for opposition are as diverse as the people: the split-estate issue, threats to wildlife or pristine areas, damage to the recreation industry, and concerns about the local water supply. Many locals emphasize that they don't oppose drilling; they just want more oversight, more fairness to property owners, or a slower pace.

"I like my standard of living, same as everyone else, but I don't like the way they're doing the drilling now," says Bob Elderkin, a retired Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee who now raises Arabian horses. Mr. Elderkin has drafted a list of 10 ways that gas companies could act more responsibly, such as limiting the number of rigs and using more "directional drilling," a less damaging method of drilling multiple wells from one pad. "I've always considered myself a conservative Republican. I guess I'm not acting that way."

To be sure, many residents in this lonely land of mesas and sagebrush - what one mayor jokingly calls the "banana belt" of Colorado because of its unseasonably warm weather - still support the drilling because of the money it's bringing in.

"If it wasn't for gas, the county would probably be bankrupt," says Carl Bernklau, a local rancher who owns his mineral rights and gets between $20,000 and $30,000 a month in royalties for the wells on his property. He's been able to work with the companies to minimize damage, he says, pointing out places where holding tanks are tucked behind ridges, on less arable land. "It's a boon to the whole area."

In nearby Rifle, the Winchester Motel has a no-vacancy sign on a Thursday night, and the Brickyard Square restaurant is bustling. "Without the oil and gas industry, we would not be in the boom we're in," says Timothy Fifer, the restaurant's owner, as he rushes to restock the bar and fill some orders.

Developers push a compromise bill

But the state's powerful developer lobby is teaming up with environmentalists to push a compromise bill that would protect property owners' rights and compensate them for lost land value. It's moving through the legislature, though activists worry the final bill may be too watered down to be much good. If that happens, they have a voter referendum ready for the ballot in November.

"The whole effort, whether through the bill or the ballot initiative, is to level the playing field a bit, because it's been very lopsided," says John Gorman, a Glenwood Springs realtor working on the issue.

For its part, the oil and gas industry says it can compromise to a point, but worries about language that would leave it liable for, say, compensating developers for lost building opportunities in areas where the drilling isn't as profitable.

"There's a legitimate property right on both sides, but we don't want to tilt the balance so far that we lose the mineral right," says Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. "I don't think this nation is going to allow one of the few bright spots of growth in gas production to go by the wayside for that."

Indeed, Colorado has more than doubled gas production in the past decade, even as the nation as a whole has started to see a slight decline. While most of the gas has been removed from the big drilling states like Texas and Louisiana, the Rockies - including Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming - still have 70 to 80 percent of their gas in the ground, says Mr. Wonstolen.

Last month, the BLM collected a record amount from auctioning off nearly 150,000 acres of oil- and gas-drilling leases. The city of Grand Junction, in adjacent Mesa County, was so angry about a few of the parcels - totaling some 12,000 acres - that it tried the highly unusual strategy of bidding on the leases itself.

"I think even though we were outbid we made the point to the state director of the BLM that we place a pretty high value on these properties, and we're going to exhaust all our alternatives to ensure these don't get developed," says Greg Trainor, the city's public works director.

The issue, for Grand Junction and the nearby town of Palisade, is the fear that drilling could contaminate the local water supply. They've lodged a formal protest, currently under review by the BLM.

While federal policy used to limit companies to one well pad for every 640 acres, the BLM under departing Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been allowing a pad for every 40 acres. On some private land, Colorado has allowed one on every 10, critics say. Others question why so many acres needed to be auctioned off, given that much leased land is still waiting to be developed.

The BLM says the pace is a reflection of both the favorable economics and the way the industry works. "A company has to have enough acreage position in place to justify their investment," says Duane Spencer, branch chief of fluid minerals for the Colorado BLM. "That takes time to acquire."

Will drilling hurt recreation industry?

Still, some locals worry that the development on the public lands is going to destroy one of the few stable economies they have: recreation. Western Colorado has seen other energy booms come and go: oil shale, coal, uranium. When oil shale went bust in 1982, thousands of residents lost their jobs and property values plummeted.

"That's the way it'll be with this gas play," says Elderkin. "The recreation industry has carried this county through the busts, but if you drill this whole area at 40-acre zoning, it's going to be an industrial park. Recreation won't be so popular, and we're going to find out what hard times are really like."

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