Rocky Mountaineers Revolt


Faced with the prospect of nearby gas drilling, Colorado rancher Janine Fitzgerald has a message for the Golden State: "Places like California could do a hell of lot more with solar energy that would not trash places like this."

The 40-year-old mother, who farms and raises draft horses with her family at the foot of the HD Mountains above the small town of Ignacio, is concerned that planned coal-bed methane development may dry up the springs that residents of the area depend on for water and that eventually flow to California along the Colorado River.

Planned drilling of tens of thousands of wells has unleashed a backlash among ranchers, farmers, and independent business people. They're challenging drilling aimed at fueling California as traditional gas fields run dry and see the new wells as a major threat to their water, air, land and way of life. Traditional gas drilling is reaching into more inhabited areas – as are new extraction methods, such as coal-bed methane.

From New Mexico to Montana, they are petitioning their government and filing lawsuits. They mutter only expletives about Vice President Dick Cheney, but heap praise upon Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his support of renewable power in California and his recent initiative with New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to increase use of renewable resources and foster cleaner energy in the American West.

Retired air force physicist Perry Walker, a lifelong Republican, has been studying air pollution from gas drilling operations. Perry documents a 15 percent decline in visibility due to well flaring and other energy company practices around Pinedale, Wyoming. He has petitioned the state to regulate the industry.

Lisa Bracken and her fellow residents began drinking bottled water last February when an EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. well drilled into gas-bearing sandstone allegedly contaminated Divide Creek, which eventually flows into the Colorado River near Silt, Colorado.

Residents are in the process of filing a lawsuit against EnCana over its alleged pollution of the creek when the casing on one of its wells failed. State authorities have cited the company and are seeking up to a $420,000 penalty. They say while it takes about $1 million to drill a well in Garfield County, Colorado, over its life a well will produce about $50 million worth of gas at today's prices.

Bracken and those like her are not necessarily opposed to all gas drilling, but they want to make sure the environmental impacts are fully mitigated. To do that, they believe, drillers should be required to follow best practices, and Californians and other urbanites should expect to pay high enough energy bills to cover necessary mitigation measures.

New technology makes gas production compatible with environmental protection, according to Walter Lowry, who spent 20 years drilling for gas and oil before becoming director of community and industry relations for EnCana at its Denver headquarters. For instance, directional drilling enables companies to minimize their footprint on the land while tapping gas that was uneconomical to recover 20 years ago.

"We're committed to be the industry leader," said Lowry while pointing out pads where EnCana had recently drilled multiple wells to minimize disturbance of the land in Garfield County – where 10,000 new gas wells are planned around Silt, Rifle, and other towns.

EnCana is beginning to flare raw hydrocarbon vapors from condensate brought up with natural gas in well fields rather than venting it directly into the air, said Lowry. The firm also is making a transition to less polluting engines to power drilling rigs.

In another step, EnCana is using water to fracture the sandstone formations that hold gas to promote its flow to wells, according to Lowry. This will eliminate any concerns that fracturing fluids may contaminate underground sources of drinking water, although some companies still use fluids containing diesel fuel and other toxic materials, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Residents maintain that even with mitigation measures, the scale of gas development will forever change the landscape of their hallowed ground and erase their tradition of independent living off the land.

"The sacrifice of a rural area to benefit an urban area is an age-old story," said Dan Randolph, oil and gas organizer for the San Juan Citizens Alliance in Durango, Colorado. "But the rural people don't necessarily think it's a fair trade."

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