Between Battlement Mesa and hard place

Battlement_Mesa_GRAPHIC2An article published in the Daily Sentinel on Sunday explores the relevance between the state’s ongoing controversy over setbacks and residential drilling and Ursa’s proposal to drill 53 wells from two well pads within the Battlement Mesa residential PUD.

At the risk of being labeled a fearmonger, the issue of residential drilling is much larger than Battlement Mesa because it affects all of us and our rights as citizens of Colorado to clean air, clean water, and a safe, healthy environment to work and play. And that debate is being played out in real time right before our eyes in Garfield County.

The article goes to great lengths to present the issues for Battlement Mesa residents as they face the eventuality of drilling in their community. In fairness, Ursa’s perspective is also outlined. I urge you to click through and read the entire article.

In the meantime, there are a couple misconceptions I’d like to point out.

State residential drilling debate playing out with Ursa proposal

BATTLEMENT MESA — Bill and Eleanor Nelson enjoy a sweeping view from the back deck of their retirement home in Battlement Mesa.

Down the hill from them, the Colorado River lazily flows, and across the other side Mount Callahan and other highlands making up the Roan Plateau jut up thousands of feet from the valley floor.

On a recent afternoon red-tailed hawks circled close overhead the Nelsons’ home, only adding to the inspiring scenery.

Soon, the view also could come to include a natural gas drilling rig some 800 feet from their home, on the valley floor between them and the river.

The well pad would be one of two that Ursa Resources hopes to locate along with an associated pipeline corridor within the unincorporated residential development of Battlement Mesa, home to several thousand people. As the proposal begins undergoing a review process by Garfield County, it is meeting resistance from some residents of the community who say it’s an inappropriate place for industrial-scale activities, and their associated fumes, noise, traffic and other impacts. And it’s serving as a high-profile, local example of the issues at stake as state regulators take up a task force’s recommendations for trying to address concerns about drilling near neighborhoods.

“This is not a fight about oil and gas. It’s a fight about residential communities and it’s a very different issue,” said Battlement Mesa resident Bernita “Bernie” Grove, who joined several neighbors on the Nelsons’ deck this week as they toured areas to be affected by Ursa’s plans.

“What’s happening in Battlement Mesa is a tragedy … for the residents of Battlement Mesa,” said Matt Sura, an attorney who is representing the Battlement Concerned Citizens group on the matter and also served on the state task force …

… Ursa plans to drill on land owned by Battlement Mesa Co., the community’s developer, under a surface-use agreement. The company’s president, Eric Schmela, notes that the development originally set aside 14 locations for possible well pads.

“Those 14 pad sites are down to five, which is a significant change for the better,” Schmela said. “… I am pleased with the way it’s evolved and its impacts have been reduced, and we’ve come up with less pads and a way to mitigate that better.”

But residents believe when the 14 pads were allocated decades ago, it was probably envisioned that each might hold one well. It was only in the 1990s and 2000s that companies began to commonly drill multiple local wells from pads, and targeting downhole locations of as little as 10 acres per well to fully develop the gas resource …

The residents are right. Fourteen well pads with one well per pad was not only envisioned, it was ordered by the COGCC.

My research indicates that prior to 1995, Colorado had 160-acre well spacing. That means one well per 160 acres. Then in 1995, a U.S. Dept of Energy multi-well experiment allowed for 1 well per 80 acres. A 1997 COGCC order approved 1 well per 40 acres, and in 1998, 1 well per 20 acres could be approved only under special circumstances. In 2003, the COGCC began allowing 1 well per 10 acres.

Not until 2007, were there any wells approved for multiple wells from one well pad. And then it was 12 to 16 per well pad which were approved strictly on a case-by-case basis.

In an effort to reduce the number of well pads, and supposedly the impact on the environment but moreover to save operators the cost of road building, the COGCC has increasingly allowed for these massive, football-field-size industrial strength multi-well pads of today. Prior to say 2013, we had not seen the likes of these monster pads around these parts.

… Dealing with issues such as noise and odors may prove more problematic. Some Battlement Mesa residents say they’re already coping with such impacts from oil and gas activity on pads just outside the development — including ones Ursa has been using to drill beneath Battlement Mesa so as to reduce the number of pads needed in the development itself.

The summer of 2014 “was horrible,” Grove said.

She and her husband like to spend time on their deck, but sometimes couldn’t due to the smell.

For a three-day stretch, “my eyes would burn, my nose would burn, it was just awful,” said Grove, who said she had to go inside, shut her windows and turn off her swamp coolers to escape the fumes.

Other residents tell of suffering nausea and headaches from odors. Karen Knupp and her husband are among them, and she said they’ve considered taking their camper to property they own in Rifle to get relief.

“The smell has been every day for the last two weeks,” she said.

Grove said she was talking to neighbors this summer and the noise from oil and gas activity made it hard for them to hear each other.

Ursa has used sound walls around pads to reduce noise. Carol Forman lives by the Nelsons, and her home also looks down on the proposed Ursa pad near the river.

“There is no way that they can block sound or fumes when you’re above it,” she said ….

… Don Simpson, an Ursa vice president, acknowledged “a lot of fear” among people about the proposal, which he says groups like Battlement Concerned Citizens foster.

“They just like to strike fear in people’s minds,” he said.

He believes Ursa has a track record of operating in the Battlement Mesa with few issues, and responding quickly when problems arise, and he says it is proposing numerous measures to minimize impacts when drilling within the community.

“We’ve got pretty much everything covered, so we’re doing it the right way,” he said.

Apparently not. As the article states, the residents are “already coping with such impacts from oil and gas activity on pads just outside the development.”

The Battlement Mesa residents’ concerns are not based on fear. It is just as they said. Their concerns are based on their ongoing experiences of living near oil & gas operations.

In other words, from where they live, it’s difficult enough coping with the oil & gas operations surrounding their community, like right now. They already know what to expect in terms of noise, dust, air & water pollution – and sickness.

This debate is about known, admitted impacts – not hypothetical fearmongering.

Do some of the residents have fears about drilling in their community? Of course, that’s only natural.

In Garfield County there have been well blowouts and fires, tank explosions, plus massive leaks and spills. And that’s just what we know about. Any fears the residents express are based in fact and drawn from experience. They know what can go wrong.

Whether the folks at Ursa like it or not, submitting their application to drill in the Battlement Mesa PUD at this point in time places them front and center in the debate over residential drilling. If they are uncomfortable under the spotlight, they can always withdraw their application.

Not just in Garfield County, and Colorado, but across the U.S. and around the world people will continue to discuss openly the impacts of oil & gas development on human health and the environment. This debate will go on. Nothing can stop us because nothing is more important than where we live and breathe.

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