Drilling Boom in Rockies Breeds Open-Range Conflict
By Dan Luzadder, Special to Stateline
Natural gas wells have provided steady royalties for decades for many western ranchers who gladly traded a hedge against volatile cattle prices for a few unsightly well pumps and gates left open now and again by forgetful gas workers.
But a growing natural gas boom in the Rockies is changing traditional views and alliances on the open range and raising new concerns over air, water and habitat pollution. The result is a 21st-century rangeland clash between those who want to protect natural resources on the surface of federal and private lands and those who want to tap the wealth beneath.
Rancher Tweedy Blancett of Aztec, N.M., knows the situation well. Her longtime neighborsall ranchers--have had a hard time reconciling the idea that she is making new friends in the environmental community.
"Environmentalists have always been on the opposite side of the fence from ranchers, as a rule," said Blancett, who runs cattle on a 32,000-acre spread of private and leased federal land that her family has controlled for generations. "My neighbors wouldn't even talk to me for awhile...but they are starting to come around, because we've got some serious issues to face here."
The new issues are arising as demand for natural gas soars nationwide and production companies focus on massive natural gas reserves in a series of major basins that stretch from New Mexico to Montana. The reserves contain an estimated 300 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas.
New technologies are making those resources more accessible. Higher natural gas prices, which spiked this winter, have freed up extra capital for development. New energy policies by the Bush administration mandate that federal agencies find ways to ease drilling for oil and gas on federal lands.
"I don't know if I would describe it as a range war, exactly," said Pete Morton, a Colorado-based economist with the Wilderness Society. "But it is producing something I've never seen before, which is ranchers and hunters and anglers starting to work right alongside the environmental community."
Morton says he is worried that environmental issues will be shoved aside in a headlong rush to open up gas reserves, some of which he contends do not make economic sense to drill.
Nonetheless, drilling and exploration companies--from wildcats to major conglomerates--are swamping federal Bureau of Land Management field offices in the Rockies with requests for drilling permits. In Colorado alone, more than 2,400 permits for new wells were filed in 2003, nearly as many as in the record-setting 1980s, and the numbers are growing.
Rancher Sid Lindauer has reaped gas royalties for years from wells on his sprawling spread near Parachute, Colo., in Garfield County. But he is frustrated by growing noise pollution from new compressors that companies use to get gas to distribution pipelines.
"You have to come out and listen to them to understand how bad it is," he said. "It's pretty incredible. And they are wanting to put in more compressor stations."
In addition, dust and noise from the dozens of drill workers whose pickup trucks race daily down rural roads around Lindauer's ranch also have left him complaining to the companies and to county commissioners. But county commissioners are torn between the economic benefits of new gas wells in Garfield County and their environmental impact.
"The commissioners haven't initiated any policy yet concerning the environmental issues," said Lindauer, who ranches on a family homestead where his father and grandfather raised cattle. "Every time I bring it up, it seems to get worse for me."
Negative feedback from ranchers like Blancett and Lindauer is not hard to find. But neither are differing perspectives from local businesses in towns where drilling has brought in new income and where gas-company jobs pay as much as $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Economic relief, they say, is a powerful balm to families roughed up by the hard times of the past three years.
At convenience stores, restaurants and truck stops in Garfield County, locals discuss both the good and bad of the natural gas boom. They laugh at stories like the one about the Wyoming rancher who got fed up with compressor noise and with complaints that fell on deaf ears and started shooting at compressor stations.
Gas company executives and those who represent them say they have made significant strides in the past decade to minimize the impact of exploration and production in new well fields.
"Production may be going up, but it is still in the single digits in Colorado," said Greg Schnake, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "We are only producing about 6 percent of the annual totals." He argues that the picture of aggressive development painted by environmental groups is overblown.
Other industry advocates, such as John Kelso, director of investor relations for gas producer Evergreen Resources of Denver, contend that high demand coupled with an improved political climate that has "leveled the playing field" for the industry is reason enough to tap resources in what company land acquisition teams call the "Persian Gulf of the Rockies."
"The country needs to take a hard look at the artificial political constraints on development, especially given the fact that we have come a long way in developing resources in an environmentally friendly way," Schnake said.
Many environmentalists, however, worry that places like Colorado's Roan Plateau an undeveloped former U.S. Naval gas reserve that has remained a wildlife habitat are likely to be changed forever as companies scramble for the gas beneath the ground. Bill Beagle, a spokesman for the Wilderness Society's new BLM Action Center in Denver, argues that native cutthroat trout in streams on the Roan must be protected along with other wildlife that draws thousands of hunters and anglers to Colorado from all over the world.
"Hunting and fishing is a very valuable, sustainable economic base for people in these areas, and it reflects a sensitive use of the natural environment," Beagle said. "But do hunters and anglers want to walk around drill pads and drilling rigs to fish and hunt? I don't think so."
Lynn Rust, deputy state director for energy with the BLM's Colorado office, has gotten plenty of mail about the Roan Plateau. He said the BLM is developing a multi-use plan for the area that will take into account arguments on both sides.
"It is likely to include some restrictions, at least on a couple of the streams," Rust said. "There will be public hearings, and folks will have plenty of opportunity to comment before any decisions are made."
Dan Luzadder is a Denver-based freelancer who frequently writes for Stateline.org.