Oil, gas drilling debate takes flight | AspenTimes.com

Oil, gas drilling debate takes flight

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The single-engine Cessna dipped slowly to the left, allowing its passengers a bird’s-eye view of the land below.

A green valley, stretched to the high cliffs on the horizon, seemed to shine in the midmorning sun – a breathtaking sight, especially from the air.

But the Cessna’s five passengers found fault with the scenery.

“What do you guys think?” asked Bruce Gordon, pilot and tour guide for the flight.

“Disgusting,” came the answer.

The passengers had spotted the drilling rigs – one for every 20 acres of land – scattered along the valley floor.

This basin just north of Rifle is a busy production area, providing natural gas to numerous Rocky Mountain customers. It could get a lot busier very soon, Gordon said. Both the natural gas and oil industries have eyed the region, including the wild area along the Roan Plateau, for further drilling.

Energy and environment have clashed in this valley – and in a local classroom, thanks to Gordon’s efforts.

On Monday, Gordon joined repre-entatives of both environmental groups and area energy concerns for a schoolhouse forum on the issue of drilling in the Roan Plateau. The group gathered at Yampa Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, treating its students – as well as a small contingent of Aspen High students on a field trip – to a lengthy drilling debate. The students were also treated to an aerial tour of the disputed area, courtesy of Gordon’s aviation company, EcoFlight.

Monday’s presentation began with what many of the assembled students saw as “the opposing viewpoint.” Steve Soychak, a district manager for energy provider Williams Production, explained his company’s predicament to the students.

“In the last 25 years, the country’s demand for energy has increased 35 percent, while the supply has increased 17 percent,” he said.

Increased demand and decreased supply leaves U.S. energy producers in a lurch, Soychak said. Importing energy sources such as petroleum, natural gas and coal from international producers helps, as does increased construction of energy plants within U.S. borders.

And the Rocky Mountains are the “single largest, untapped, onshore natural gas resource in the U.S.,” he said, and ripe for drilling. A representative from the Bureau of Land Management and a Garfield County resource manager were also on hand to discuss the plotted drilling areas, obtaining permits and repairing land no longer used for drilling.

Crawford rancher Larry Jensen, on the other hand, provided his personal experiences with energy providers. Though Jensen owns his ranch land, the state owns the mineral rights, and therefore has the right to mine for natural resources – a practice with the potential of ruining the land, Jensen said.

“I’m not here to vilify the oil and gas company,” he said. “I’m a rancher – my job is to try to minimize the disturbance on our property.”

Jensen described a visit to Aztec, N.M., a town that he said has been “ravaged” by natural gas drilling. Pollution has affected every living thing in that small town, he said, affecting water and air quality.

The presentation wrapped up with a trip to the Glenwood Springs Airport, where nearly 40 students were shuttled to the Roan Plateau for a view of the drilling area. EcoFlight, a company Gordon created last year for the promotion of environmental issues, provided the flights.

Monday’s flight seemed to tip the scales in the environmentalists’ favor. Students said they respected the presentation of two different viewpoints during the morning’s debate, but were persuaded by the sight of a few dozen drilling rigs marking an otherwise clear valley.

“It was good, getting the opposing point of view, but at the same time, you can hear they’re closed-minded, that they’re ripping the environment apart,” said Aspen High junior Scot Woolley.

[Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com]

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