Think you own your ranch? Think again
August 10, 2006
Our cattle, our dreams and our ranching lives are now a thing of the past. My husband and I felt obligated to sell everything we had worked for more than nine years in Silt, in western Colo., to escape the impacts of gas drilling.As one who has lived through the experience, I can say that the drilling that rapidly expanded around our 200-acre ranch took away everything that we came to expect of country living. Traffic increased, and so did the dust; in addition to the well pads we saw every day, there were pipelines and roads. Irrigation ditches were severed, weeds encroached on the disturbed grounds, fences got cut.Our land represented our retirement. Before we put our ranch on the market, my husband and I tried to determine how much we could afford to lose on our investment, as studies have shown the obvious: No one wants to live near drilling. We were among the lucky — we owned our mineral rights. The man who bought our ranch wanted those rights; he cared nothing for the land.It’s good the new owner doesn’t live in the area full time, because gas drilling makes a place unlivable. A nearby creek, Divide Creek, was literally bubbling with methane from a leaking casing on a well. Yet a company’s failure to abide by the laws governing drilling rarely brings a significant fine. Fines are levied by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is dominated by industry representatives.Until you experience it, you cannot fathom the noise of these operations, the explosions that rattle your home, the humming of the generators and the rumble of increased traffic. Sitting on our porch at night was like watching a scene from hell as the clouds reflected red from flaring gas.The painful thing is that we thought we were protected. When we purchased our ranch in 1995, we went to the courthouse and read about the leasing of our mineral rights by the former owner. According to this document, the lease would expire in 1998, so we figured, since drilling wasn’t evident in the area at the time, we’d take a chance, and deemed ourselves safe when that deadline passed.In 2003, we received notice that the company wanted to drill several wells on our ranch, with a schematic of where the wells, roads and pipelines were to be located. This preliminary work was performed on a desk in a high-rise building in Denver, with no chance for us to be involved. There was no mention of compressor stations, waste pits or roads. To our shock, one of the proposed wells was in the middle of our best-producing alfalfa field.When we protested that the lease had expired, we were informed that our ranch had been “unitized,” a federal designation that pools large tracts of land into a “unit” for the convenience of the drilling company. Unitization essentially changes two significant aspects of the lease: Any well spacings that have been previously negotiated are negated (the location and density of the wells is now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management), and the lease becomes, essentially, a lease in perpetuity. No one should be fooled into thinking that owning the mineral rights will protect landowners.Faced with, and finally accepting, the inevitable, and hoping that drilling could be done responsibly, we were interested in finding alternative places for the wells. We also worried about accident prevention and mitigation. This last fear was driven by the calamities, such as leaks of mine waste, that we had seen our neighbors endure.We met with industry representatives to negotiate a surface use agreement. We were given assurances, specifically regarding the monitoring equipment in case of a spill or leak, but we were not convinced the devices would be in place. We had no power and felt it. We dared not call the land men on their assurances, which never seemed believable, because we also knew that all of the cards were in their hands. By law, if a landowner is deemed to be recalcitrant, demanding or obstreperous, the drilling company has the right to post a laughable bond amount and drill on the property without a surface use agreement. As a landowner, you walk a fine line in these mock negotiations. You have to approach industry as a supplicant, not as an equal.Let landowners elsewhere be warned: By the time the industry representatives come knocking on your door, it’s too late.Rosemary Bilchak is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She and her husband live in Hotchkiss, Colo.