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Battlement Mesa residents battle oil, gas industry

John ColsonGlenwood Springs correspondentAspen, CO Colorado
Kelley Cox/Post IndependentAntero Resources work crews set up a drilling rig on the Watson Ranch well pad, located to the southwest of Battlement Mesa and just outside the boundary of the community. Battlement Mesa officials say the rig will be drilling into the gas deposits underneath the community, and that the company has a permit for 10 new wells.
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BATTLEMENT MESA, Colo. – As in the cinematic fables of Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed, or the Mighty Ducks against the Hawks, the controversy over gas drilling here is a story of underdogs striving against big odds.But instead of a boxing ring or a hockey arena, the confrontation here involves endless hours of meetings and community activism by a group of mostly elderly retired volunteers, set against the paid and experienced public relations staffs and engineers of a large energy company.One of the activist groups is the Battlement Concerned Citizens group (BCC), formed in July 2009, shortly after Antero Resources announced its plan to sink up to 200 wells within the boundaries of the Battlement Mesa Planned Unit Development [PUD], an unincorporated community near Parachute in western Garfield Country.The BCC which, working with other citizens advocacy groups, has placed itself directly in the path of Antero Resources.

Antero, one of a dozen or so companies working the Piceance Basin gas field in Garfield County, announced its general drilling plans last June, at a meeting with residents of Battlement Mesa.Since then, in further meetings with community members, the company has said it expects to do only limited drilling in 2010, on a single pad located just outside the community’s boundaries, known as the Watson Ranch pad.According to residents, the company has permits to drill 10 wells from that pad, which is located southwest from the residential areas.A broader development plan, presented to the community in August 2009, outlines a general three-phase schedule for further drilling, starting with four pads and an as-yet undetermined number of wells by the end of 2011 or 2012.Antero has leased the rights to gas and oil deposits beneath Battlement Mesa from an even bigger energy giant, ExxonMobil, and has said it plans ultimately to drill up to 20 wells per pad, from 10 pads to be built within the PUD boundaries.ExxonMobil’s corporate predecessor, Exxon Corp., was the original developer of Battlement Mesa, back in the 1980s.The community was intended to provide housing for workers in the then-burgeoning oil shale industry. The project fizzled when Exxon pulled out of its oil shale project on what became known as Black Sunday – May 2, 1982 – and the company ultimately sold the 3,200-acre Battlement Mesa property but retained the mineral rights.The community languished for a while, but then evolved into what it is today – a collection of houses, townhomes and mobile homes accommodating approximately 5,000 people, who are mainly retirees and commuters to jobs in other towns.Under state law, mineral rights trump the surface-property rights of the homeowners and renters.Some residents believe the gas drilling plan poses serious health risks to the population, as well as possible negative effects on their property values, and have banded together to fight against Antero.But the groups representing residents’ interests here, and the residents themselves, are by no means unanimous in their approach to, or attitudes about the drilling plans.A veritable alphabet soup of organizations are involved – BCC, BMSA, O&GC (a subcommittee of the BMSA) and the BMCMD, principal among them.All of them – Battlement Concerned Citizens; Battlement Mesa Services Association and its Oil & Gas Committee; and the Battlement Mesa Consolidated Metropolitan District – are dealing in one way or another with Antero Resources’ plans.

The BCC is the embodiment of a classic underdog. Its members have been attending government meetings, holding meetings of their own and working with some other organizations, most notably the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the Western Colorado Congress, to either slow or stop Antero’s efforts.Dave Devanney, a leading BCC member, recently asked the county’s Energy Advisory Board to press for more information about a Jan. 1, 2010, fire at one of Antero’s drilling rigs south of Silt.Battlement Mesa residents, Devanney said, are worried that similar incidents to the Antero fire could occur in their neighborhood, although Antero officials have said their concern is unfounded.The EAB made no formal decision regarding the request, and currently is under fire from some gas companies over charges that board meetings create a “toxic atmosphere” that citizens too often use to “bash industry.”Among the issues being pursued by the BCC, according to minutes from a Jan. 6 meeting at the Battlement Mesa Activity Center, are concerns about the integrity and durability of “pit liners,” used by the industry to contain a mix of water, sand and chemicals generated by the drilling process.Antero, Battlement Mesa officials have said, is planning for the fluid that comes out of the well bores, prior to the flow of the natural gas, to be trucked or piped away and stored in “injection wells” in other locations. This would mean that pits, and therefore liners, would not be used, according to these officials.The BCC also is looking into the possibility of a swap of mineral rights, giving Antero some other place to drill its wells while leaving Battlement Mesa alone.So far, there has been no direct contact with ExxonMobil, and no indication the corporation is interested in a swap, said Devanney.

Antero, the Goliath of this drama, has gas extraction interests in the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest and the east coast, according to online profiles of the company.Despite repeated calls from the Post Independent to offices in Rifle and Denver, Antero representatives could not be reached for comments on this story.In seeking drilling permits, Antero can count on a generally accommodating stance from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission – which oversees drilling permits – and from Garfield County – which requires Special Use Permits for mineral extraction inside the PUD.Both the COGCC and Garfield County have shown a reluctance to interfere with the industry unless there is considerable evidence showing that drilling activities threaten the public’s health, safety and welfare. To date, no such conclusive evidence has been reported.One of the organizations dealing with Antero’s plans, the BMSA, has essentially come to the conclusion that Antero will get its state permits to drill despite the efforts of its critics.”There’s no question in the minds of virtually everyone that’s on the BMSA board that that is the case,” BMSA president Keith Lammey told the Post Independent last week.The BMSA, which is essentially the homeowners association for the community, has through its oil and gas committee been meeting with Antero representatives on a monthly basis since July 2009.Rather than hoping to stop the drilling, the BMSA is interested in “managing the drilling so it will have minimal impacts on our community,” said Lammey.For now, he said, the BMSA’s main concern regarding Antero’s drilling plans is how best to deal with a $1 million contribution to the coffers of BMSA, pledged by the company last year.The first payment of that contribution, $250,000, is supposed to be handed over once drilling begins inside the PUD boundary, and there is no plan as yet about how to spend it.Regarding the idea of combining the efforts of the BMSA and the BCC, Lammey stated, “We are distinctly different groups. There is a difference in our perspective and, what I understand is, the BCC’s perspective … a difference in focus.”He said the BCC is “more of a political action group” while the BMSA is the “official ruling body for Battlement Mesa proper” with a broad scope of responsibilities.But, he stressed, the two groups “certainly have the common goal of looking after the welfare of our community.”One other group in the mix, the Battlement Mesa Consolidated Metropolitan District, has little to do with Antero’s plans beyond the question of how to supply the drilling operations with water, said District Manager Steve Rippy.The metro district, he said, oversees the water and sewer system for the community, as well as operating the activity center and other day-to-day functions.”We really haven’t been involved in the oil and gas discussions,” Rippy said.Metro district president Bill Nelson said the district’s contract to provide water to the Watson Ranch well pad is expected to eliminate 9,000 water-truck trips from local roads.

It should be noted that, unlike movie plots, the conflict over Antero’s plans is not broadly recognized as a struggle of good versus bad, black versus white, but one that is cloaked in shades of gray.One resident of Battlement Mesa since 1994 told the Post Independent late last week that he has no concerns about Antero’s plans.”None, none at all,” said Jack Blankenship, an 84-year-old retiree who once worked for Standard Oil and Gas, a corporate cousin to Exxon.”We have the best companies that could possibly come in here,” he said of the operators working in Garfield County, including Antero. He explained that big companies “have the deep pockets to take care of any problems that come up,” whereas “wildcatters and fly-by-nighters” have no such resources.Critics, such as those in the BCC, he said, “are trying scare tactics” to disparage Antero’s drilling proposals.Of course, he conceded, “There are accidents in all industrial operations.”But, he continued, Williams Production has had a well pad in Battlement Mesa for the past two decades. Drilling occurred without the required permits from Garfield County but also without any complaints from its neighbors, Blankenship said.The permits recently were granted by the county despite resistance from anti-industry activists.”That shows that there was no real reason, except technically, to get that problem solved,” Blankenship argued. “I think it’s lack of knowledge about the oil and gas industry that makes them [industry critics] fearful.”He feels that the BMSA, rather than the BCC, is doing a good job of representing his views.”I think they [the BMSA] would like to see the development done, but they’re also representing the part of our community that’s against it,” Blankenship observed.Bill Nelson, chair of the BMSA’s oil and gas committee and president of the metro district, said the meetings between the committee and Antero have been “amicable. Antero is really doing its best, I think, to mitigate the whole situation as far as possible.”He conceded that, at several public meetings, “there was some intense questioning” from residents.Personally, Nelson said, “It’s publicly known that I’m not happy with the location of [some of] the pads” in his neighborhood, Stone Ridge Village, and that he and others have tried unsuccessfully to get the locations changed.Meetings between the oil and gas committee and Antero take place on the second Tuesday of every month, and are posted on the website, http://www.battlementmesacolorado.com.jcolson@postindependent.com


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