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My county has a bad case of gas

Ed Marston

The western Colorado county I live in has always taken a live-and-let-live approach to land use: no zoning, no building codes and an ignored master plan. But something is happening to turn that stance on its head, something called coal-bed methane gas.

Koch Industries, operating here as Gunnison Energy, has asked the Delta County commissioners for permission to drill five wells to test how much natural gas lies below and how much water must be pumped to the surface to get the gas to flow.

This March, the commissioners fast-tracked approval of the test wells: full speed ahead onto a potential 75,000 acres of leased mineral rights on federal land and 15,000 acres of private land leases spread across the south face of the high and beautiful and green flat-top mountain known as Grand Mesa.

Coal-bed methane drilling threatens aquifers and surface water. Normal development puts a well every 20 to 40 acres. Each needs an acre of leveled, bare ground. Each needs a road and pipelines for gas and water. And every pod of wells needs a noisy compressor station to pressurize gas flowing out of the ground.

After the initial drilling, always done by gypsy crews, jobs vanish. Gas and money flow together to distant places. We would be left with an industrial subdivision across tens of thousands of acres of pasture and forest that had been Delta County’s last bankable crop: real estate development of the county as it goes from rural to sprawling suburban.

As a result, this still-rural place isn’t taking its usual laissez-faire approach to development.

Changing priorities

At the first public meeting, commissioners pushed hard for drilling. Commissioner Ted Hayden told the crowd that Gunnison Energy intends to do things right, so horror stories from other places were irrelevant.

Less than a month later, the county commissioner – looking as if he had been to hell and back – told 500 residents there would be a nine-month moratorium on drilling applications. It was a shocking political turnaround by a development-at-any-cost commission, but it barely fazed the crowd. People spent the next three hours, in up-to-three-minute chunks, asking the company’s representative, Tony Gale, questions like: “Where do you live, and where is the closest gas well to your home?”

Those who spoke said they cared about water and noise. But most came because of property. Real estate brokers said deals were already falling through. Gunnison Energy had clouded everyone’s title.

The cloud is a dark one. Gunnison Energy’s property rights are at least as strong as the rights of a surface owner. Those who own a ranch or subdivision lot may resent a well or compressor station on their property, or where they can see or hear it. But from the gas company’s and the Colorado legislature’s point of view, surface-right owners are interfering with the driller’s superior underground rights. Those of us who look at the public land or recreate or graze cattle on it are in a similarly weak position.

Underlying issues

Put aside the environment and you are left with the eternal Western issue: clashing, incompatible property rights.

There is a saying among businessmen that money talks. Fervent talk at meetings won’t mean much if the commissioners face a lawsuit from gas seekers that could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. To fight this, one of Colorado’s poorest counties will have to raise real money. No matter how good the cake, bake sales won’t do it. Delta County residents will have to conquer their anti-government, anti-taxing beliefs to raise tax money to defend their land.

The normally vociferous property-rights people have already shown the way. Not one has said a word in public about the company’s property rights. Politically at this moment, not all property rights are created equal.

Greens are cooperating in this rush to the middle. Across the West, environmental groups almost always fight county attempts to control local federal lands. Environmentalists automatically turn to the federal government for protection. But the feds here have already sold out Delta County by granting leases, so now, local environmentalists are urging the county to take control of gas drilling on the Grand Mesa National Forest.

Ideological conviction goes great with coffee, or when you don’t have a dog in a fight. But when a major industrial power comes calling, you tend to get real. Delta County is in the process of getting real.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia (hcn.org) where he is the publisher.


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