Gas-drilling battle brews near Pitco | AspenTimes.com

Gas-drilling battle brews near Pitco

Residents of the North Fork Valley are fighting a battle against gas exploration that one former oil industry executive suggested could spill over McClure Pass into Pitkin County.

The Paonia-based Western Slope Environmental Resources Council has rallied neighbors around Delta County to try to “rein in” a company that hopes to drill up to 600 wells between the towns of Delta and Somerset.

The targeted terrain is on the southern edge of the Grand Mesa and along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. Affected towns include Cedaredge, Paonia and Hotchkiss, in addition to Delta and Somerset.

The Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance, whose legal advisors include Tom Smith of Aspen, are trying to convince the Delta County Commissioners to make an unprecedented effort to exert local control over gas exploration and drilling.

The members of the alliance are concerned the gas wells will ruin their quality of life and the environment, according to spokeswoman Robin Waters, who has homes in Hotchkiss and Basalt.

“It’s their life, their future, their land,” Waters said.

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Tom Leach, an oil industry executive for 17 years, is now a Hotchkiss resident helping lead the fight against the plans of the Gunnison Energy Corp.

The company wants to drill into coal-bed methane and use water to extract the natural gas, Leach said. He is familiar enough with the process to be concerned about potential effects on the water supply.

“You can’t produce it without producing a lot of waste water,” Leach said.

If the test wells show abundant natural gas supplies, Gunnison Energy has said it will apply for 20 production wells next year. It could operate as many as 600 wells at full production, according to its applications.

The citizens’ alliance wants guarantees that water that is used or tainted will be replaced. The group is lobbying the county commissioners to make the gas company post a bond of large enough financial size to assure water could be replaced through other sources.

Gunnison Energy said that is an onerous and unnecessary condition.

Typically, plans of oil and gas companies are reviewed only by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The commission approved Gunnison Energy’s application for three test wells on July 3.

However, the gas company has agreed to take its application through the Delta County review process. The Delta County planning commission recommended approval of the application, with numerous conditions. The county commissioners are reviewing the application and are expected to rule within the next two weeks.

Smith is helping the citizens press the point that Delta County can and should apply conditions to gas well exploration and production, according to Leach. Smith couldn’t be reached before press time.

Some observers find it ironic that Delta County is trying to pull the reins on the gas and oil industry. Residents of the Rifle area and other parts of Garfield County have become frustrated in recent years by the inability to control the industry.

Delta County seemed unlikely to try to exert control because it doesn’t even have zoning in place.

“We don’t have a great reputation in the state,” Leach said. “This is where old trailers go to die.”

But now, the county’s approach may be a model for other areas. Leach said Pitkin County could conceivably be facing similar issues. The gas industry is focusing on extracting gas from coal seams. The Coal Basin area near Redstone and the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale were big coal mining areas that might be next on the gas exploration list, he noted.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.]