Drilling In Fast-Growing Areas Ushers in New Era of Tension
October 26, 2011
DENVER — The pattern is clear in the oil and gas business: drilling fields are going into new places. North Dakota, better known for growing wheat, is now booming with rigs. Fort Worth has upward of 2,000 gas wells right in the city itself, with most of that growth within just the last five years. Pittsburgh, facing the prospect of urban drilling, forbade it last year by a vote of the City Council.
The Drilling Down series examines the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry.
Rick Davis, whose family has sold the mineral rights to land it once owned near Colorado Springs.
But few areas are facing the prospect of drilling's new frontier more vividly than eastern Colorado, where 80 percent of this state's population of five million people cluster in a line of cities and suburbs stretching out from Denver, Colorado's capital and largest city.
A 90 million-year-old oil bed called the Niobrara — estimated to contain two billion barrels, locked in shale that in past drilling eras was considered too costly to extract — laces down from southeast Wyoming and Nebraska. And like a cowboy with Saturday-night pay in his pocket, ready to spend big and have a good time, the energy industry is riding into town to drill for it.
Drilling permits in suburbs, parks and even in lakes have made the local news. Using hydrofracturing technologies — breaking the shale with water, sand and chemicals to release the oil — and horizontal, spiderlike tentacle borers that can spin out beneath communities, the still-emerging boom is bringing energy exploration to some of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, and to places with no experience whatsoever in dealing with it.
"It's completely surrounding the metro area," said Thom Kerr, the permit and technical services manager at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry.
The story here is not just about oil, however, but about life in a moment of profound economic and social uncertainty in post-recession America, residents, politicians and industry experts say. Drillers are going into some areas that were once, in rosier times, earmarked for housing or other uses, and elsewhere companies are creating jobs and taxes in communities that have been gasping for air, and ways to make ends meet.
The geography looks like this:
¶ A half-hour north of downtown Denver, Weld County stretches toward Wyoming with more active oil and gas wells — 17,388 as of this month according to state figures — than almost any other county in the United States.
¶ An hour south, the state's second-largest city, Colorado Springs, is scrambling to write its first drilling regulations, with the prospect of wells within city limits as early as next year. An 18,000-acre former ranch — zoned for housing that mostly never materialized — was bought this month on the city's east side for $20 million by a Canadian company, Ultra Petroleum, which has also bought more than 100,000 acres of mineral rights farther east in El Paso County in recent months. The county, officials say, has never had a producing oil or gas well in historical memory.
¶ To the west, in the high-country playlands of the Rocky Mountains, the story is the same: drilling, and tensions over drilling, in places where that generally has not happened before. In Routt County, west of Rocky Mountain National Park, energy companies are exploring extensions of the Niobrara. In affluent Aspen, county commissioners have passed regulations, now being fought by the industry, that would all but halt exploration.
Colorado as a whole is certainly no stranger to the energy business. Some of the nation's first wells, in the 1800s, were sunk here, and in Weld County, some older fields have been pumping since the 1940s or earlier. The state's western half is a huge producer of natural gas. And Denver's office towers have long housed engineers and managers overseeing oil country in Wyoming, Montana and elsewhere.
But for many newer residents in the Denver area, who came for jobs in aerospace, financial services or software, oil is a remote idea or something from the city's past — a trajectory epitomized by the career of Gov. John W. Hickenlooper, a Democrat who was laid off as a young petroleum engineer in the 1980s energy bust, founded a beer hall and then went into politics.
The Denver metropolitan area, with more than 2.5 million people, is the nation's 21st largest, according to the Census.
"We were blissfully ignorant," said Mark Lowderman, the assessor in El Paso County, where the County Commission — all five members are Republicans — passed a four-month emergency timeout last month on any drilling to get ready to write regulations. "We're trying to learn as fast as we can," Mr. Lowderman said.
Rick Davis is among those caught in the middle. His roots run deep in what was once wind-dusted agricultural country outside Colorado Springs. His father, Joe, growing up in the Great Depression, long talked about the day a geologist came through the area and said he thought there might be oil under the ranch. The story became family legend — if you sell the land, Mr. Davis preached to his children, keep the rights to the minerals beneath.
They listened. And when the landmen, as oil-lease buyers are called, contacted Rick Davis's 88-year-old mother, Ruth, this year, he advised her to follow Joe's dream and take the money.
Other people, like Gene Fatton, are fighting back. Mr. Fatton, an engineer in the suburbs of Fort Collins, an hour north of Denver, has peppered state regulators ever since a drilling platform was built about a hundred yards behind his house last winter — on top of a former landfill that he knew in his engineer's heart was a very bad place to base heavy machinery.
"They're trying to do the right thing," Mr. Fatton said of the environmental regulators who finally came and looked at the site, and scratched their heads at the garbage beneath the concrete drill pad. "They're just understaffed in dealing with this."
But in many places where housing construction in boom times led to congestion, traffic and air quality concerns, the debate over oil is tangled with questions over what the land should be.
Mr. Davis, a senior appraiser at the El Paso County assessor's office, said he thinks that drilling, in an odd way, could protect the countryside he loves from housing sprawl. Where there are wells, he said, houses might not go, leaving the wide open spaces still wide open.
- Source: Kirk Johnson, NY Times
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