Garfield County to intervene in drilling plans

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

RIFLE, Colo. – Anxious residents of the Silt Mesa and Peach Valley areas on Tuesday won the support of two Garfield County commissioners in a fight to keep a gas drilling company from greatly increasing the density of gas wells in the neighborhoods.

The Board of County Commissioners voted 2-1, with commissioner John Martin dissenting, to formally intervene in a request by the Antero Resources drilling company, which is asking the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for the increased drilling rights.

“I don’t think this is going to solve your problems,” Martin told the 120 or so people assembled in the Clough Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College’s West Garfield Campus.

Instead, he said, “It’s going to be the community that’s in this room that solves these problems.”

And by opposing Antero’s plan, he said, “You’re taking away from those that are entitled to the royalties for extraction of their minerals.”

But commissioners Tresi Houpt and Mike Samson concluded that the county should do what it could on behalf of its constituents.

Samson remarked that, as a lifelong resident and former educator in Rifle, he personally knew many of those in the audience and had taught some of them in schools.

As a consequence, he said, “I have a lot of concerns about the health, safety and welfare of the people.”

In addition, he said, he believes that the COGCC is operating under rules that are “flawed” because they fail to “help everybody in a constructive manner.”

In particular, he said, the commission bars ordinary citizens from having formal “standing” to intervene in drilling issues that affect their lives, which leaves such interventions up to the county.

“I am not against drilling at all,” Samson said, adding that he nonetheless was disturbed over Antero’s plan to intensify drilling from one well every 160 acres to one well every 10 acres.

The company hopes to get what is known as 10-acre permission from the state for a 640-acre section of the Silt Mesa-Peach Valley neighborhood.

Officials say 10-acre spacing already is in place in many parts of Garfield County, and note that it refers to below ground bores and not a drilling rig every 10 acres.

Already, four new wells have gone in north of Silt, upsetting neighbors and prompting the formation of a new citizens group, the Rifle-Silt-Peach Valley-New Castle Alliance, or RSPN Alliance.

Samson stated that Silt Mesa is “unlike any other place that’s been drilled in Garfield County. That gives me great concern,” referring to the density of the homes in the area, the presence of children and the prospect of severe losses in property value.

Dave Kubeczko of the COGCC’s office in Rifle pointed out that Silt Mesa and Peach Valley do not qualify as “high-density” residential areas, which have been found to be subject to different criteria than rural locations in other parts of the state.

Still, Kubeczko said, now that he is aware of the concerns of the neighborhood, he can take such concerns into account when Antero returns to the COGCC for future drilling permits.

The commissioners’ vote came after a nearly six-hour meeting at the CMC campus, in which representatives of Antero, the county and the neighborhoods told their stories.

Several speakers lauded the efforts of Antero to work with area residents, starting with a Community Drilling Plan worked out for the Rifle-Silt-New Castle area in 2005, and continuing through dialogue with the residents of Battlement Mesa, where the company expects to drill up to 200 wells in the unincorporated community.

“I am for drilling, I am for production,” declared Lauren Boebert of Silt, whose husband works in the industry.

“When I saw a rig go up in my backyard, that was the happiest day of my life,” she told the crowd. “I open my window so I can see the glow of the rig. That is hope.”

But the vast majority of citizens speaking at the meeting told far different stories.

Many spoke of unfulfilled promises concerning such things as water testing; despair over the lack of public information about when and where rigs can be expected; and of fears about air and water contamination that have partly grown out of community knowledge of the experiences of people living on the south side of the Colorado River, where drilling has been far more intense until now.

At the beginning of the meeting, Commissioner Houpt, who sits on the COGCC, noted that the discussion now and on Nov. 29 “will bring out important concerns many people have” regarding the drilling and how it is dealt with at the COGCC.

Although Houpt maintained that the COGCC’s regulations are not “flawed,” as Samson called them, she conceded, “As you experience energy development, you discover certain shortfalls in the rules.”

The county’s intervention, she said, will serve as a forum for discussing such shortfalls and their effects on peoples’ lives.

The commissioners voted after going behind closed doors to discuss the matter and get legal advice from county attorney Don DeFord, despite an objection from a reporter who argued that the people in attendance had a right to hear the full discussion before a vote was taken.