The real Battlement Mesa story

battlement mesa golf courseThis week I posted the article about the dispute over Ursa’s plan to drill in Battlement Mesa, published in the Sunday edition of the Daily Sentinel. A side story that accompanied the main article posed a skewed perspective of Battlement Mesa history. I’m not going to post the entire text of the article because I don’t want to take up space. We have a lot to cover. Please click through and read (about 370 words), I’ll wait …

Battlement Mesa was built on energy development

Did Dennis Webb and John Doose meet in a bar and concoct this story? It’s like drunk history – missing whole chunks of time.

Above all, the piece leaves readers with the misconception that somehow home buyers and residents should have known they would eventually be living in the middle of a gaspatch.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

As I reported in my previous post, 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.

There was no real reason to be concerned about the mineral rights under residential property. For one thing, by the 1990s, residential properties were rarely sold with water rights or mineral rights. The formation of irrigation districts allowed homeowners to “buy” water rights. And it’s safe to say that no residential properties were sold with mineral rights by then. Never mind the fact that the concept of fracking was unheard of at the time, with guaranteed 40-acre well spacing, there was no such thing as residential drilling and fracking.

For a true retrospective of the Battlement Mesa story, we need look no further than Dr. Jeffrey Jacquet’s report published in November 2014:

The Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment
A case study and oral history of process and lessons learned

Dr. Jeffrey Jacquet is an assistant professor of Sociology and Rural Studies at South Dakota State University. His research on Battlement Mesa was conducted for Headwaters Economics, an independent, nonprofit research group that explores community development and land management issues in western states.

Dr. Jacquet’s 30-page report should be required reading for every citizen in Garfield County. I urge you to read the entire report at your earliest convenience so the next time the media and the industry put forth their revisionist history, you’ll be ready for them.

While it’s true that the community “was built on energy development,” in reality the community has evolved over the years. However if we go back 40 years, before Exxon, we unearth yet another reason why residents were not the least bit concerned about mineral rights or drilling in their community.

When Atlantic Richfield requested in March of 1975 that the Garfield County Commissioners re-zone 3,010 acres south of Parachute to allow for worker housing, the county commissioners declared the unincorporated area a “Planned Unit Development” or PUD. The PUD designation gave the county regulatory control over development in the area, and new changes to the PUD, such as oil and gas development, would require a special use permit (SUP) or major land use impact review (MLUIR) before the changes could take place.

Therefore henceforth, anyone who contemplated living in Battlement Mesa was guaranteed from the very beginning that the county had regulatory control over oil & gas development inside the PUD. No one could have ever anticipated the eventual influence that the oil & gas industry would wield over the county commissioners and that one day in the not-too-distant future they would turn their backs on the citizenry in favor of oil & gas development at any cost.

That’s exactly what happened and you can read more about that in Dr. Jacquet’s report. But let’s return to the 1970s.

Atlantic Richfield constructed modest housing for workers and no real development occurred until 1980, when Exxon swooped in with big plans for oil shale development. Exxon bought out Atlantic Richfield’s oil shale leases and constructed an oil shale processing facility. Exxon also purchased the 3,010-acre PUD and named it the Colony Project.

We all know what happened next, right?

Black Sunday —

Less than three years later, on May 2, 1982 (a date that has become known as “Black Sunday”) Exxon abruptly closed the facility and directly laid off the 3,000 workers employed by the company, and indirectly the many thousands of employees utilized by various subcontractors (Hanson and Limerick 2009). By that time, approximately 1,700 people called Battlement Mesa home, living in 33 single-family homes, 32 apartments, 465 trailer spaces, and 180 recreational vehicles. Meanwhile, foundations were poured and frames partially constructed for an additional 168 single family homes, while 400 apartment units were also in some stage of construction (Daily Sentinel, no date).

Within a few years, Battlement Mesa’s population dropped to about 600.

In 1985, Exxon began their “Liveable Mountain” campaign touting the planned development as “a haven for upscale retirees.” The company built apartments, a shopping center and roads. In 1988, the 53,000 square-foot activity center and the RV Park were finished. By 1989, Exxon had completed the 18-hole golf course and clubhouse, swimming pool, and 200 new townhouse units. At that time, the nearest job opportunities were anywhere from 45 to 85 miles away in Glenwood Springs, Snowmass Village, and Aspen. So even with all the new amenities, Battlement Mesa’s population only grew to about 1,500 by 1989.

The Battlement Mesa Company, a real estate developer, bought out Exxon’s interests in the PUD at the end of 1989. During the 1990s, the developer transformed Battlement Mesa into a leading retirement destination. In 1997, Battlement Mesa was included with the likes of Sun City, Palm Springs, and Naples, Florida, in New Choices magazine’s list of the top 20 best retirement communities in America.

At the turn of the century, 2000, in addition to the original apartments and townhouses, there were 588 single-family residences and 704 trailers and manufactured homes in Battlement Mesa, housing a population of about 3,500.

In the early 2000s, energy industries once again set their sights on the Piceance Basin in western Colorado. However with the previous boom and bust firmly etched in their collective memories, locals were naturally wary of any large-scale plans for oil & gas development in Garfield County. Government officials were taking active steps to avoid becoming dependent on oil and gas as the only economic driver in the region.

One county official noted that “the community of Rifle, Colorado, which is kind of an old west mentality, also had some forward-thinking leaders that looked to: how do we make our community more vibrant, how do we improve the economy in our reach of the County, how do we get away from being totally driven by extractive industries whether it be mining, or oil and gas, fossil fuels? … so they’re looking at diversifying the economy and getting it away from [the] strictly agriculture and extractive industry sector.”

At the end of 2001, Barrett Resources which had morphed into Williams Energy Services was the largest producer in the Piceance with 500 active wells – one well per 40 acres. A handful of other players including Tom Brown, Alberta Energy, Mesa Hydrocarbons, ExxonMobil and El Paso/Coastal, were also dipping their toes in to test the economic waters. With the high costs of extraction in the Piceance Basin’s “tight sands,” industry skepticism and speculation kept drilling at a manageable pace.

With 40-acre well spacing, oil & gas was a lot like agriculture because the operations occurred in rural and back country regions and had little or no impact on residential communities, other than jobs for locals. In those days, oil & gas operations were viewed much like sheep ranches. Just as there were no sheep ranches in residential areas, there were no oil & gas wells in residential areas. If you wanted to see a sheep ranch you had to go up the country and find one – same with an oil & gas well. Oil & gas development was only part of a larger local economy that relied heavily on agriculture, tourism, outdoor recreation, and real estate development.

The big push toward real estate development farther away from the resort areas had flourished through the 1990s. Affordable mountain-living attracted thousands to western Colorado’s “sunbelt.” And, as the result of a decade-long marketing strategy, Battlement Mesa had become steadfastly established as a retirement community.

Important Demographic Changes
Finally, the strategy of attracting retirees to take up residence in the Battlement Mesa community produced a more affluent and educated citizenry one that had re-located from elsewhere around the country and was not directly affiliated with the energy industry. Relatedly, the eastern reaches of Garfield County experienced a dramatic boom in amenity-led development, especially during the period of the 1990s through the great recession circa 2008. Retirees, second-home owners, and employees of the vast tourism industry in neighboring
Pitkin and Eagle counties began to “spill-over” into eastern Garfield County.

By 2010, the population had grown to about 4,500. So let’s be clear. As a real estate development, Battlement Mesa was vastly more successful than it ever was as an energy development.

Furthermore, Battlement Mesa was never marketed or sold as an energy development. There was no reason for anyone who ever bought a home to fear the intrusion of a gas well in their backyard.

That is, until May 27, 2009, when Antero announced plans to drill 200 wells on 10 well pads inside the Battlement Mesa PUD, sending a shockwave through the community that reverberated all the way to the Garfield County BOCC chambers.

Next: The Battlement Mesa HIA story


The Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment
A case study and oral history of process and lessons learned

Battlement Mesa: a case study of community evolution

Piceance Basin might become very well recognized

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2 Comments on “The real Battlement Mesa story”

  1. Edward Robertson Says:

    Thank you so much for your article. Hope your research helps us. Its going to be a long, hard fight.

  2. Sandy Getter Says:

    Please send this to Fred Jarman of the Garfield Cty. planning board and ask him to include this in the O & G Commissioners’ packets of info to read before the Oct. 28 meeting in Glenwood Springs.

    Also, our country commissioners should get a copy, as well as Don Simpson and John Doose of Ursa.

    People in Glenwood and GJ should be required to read this, too. I’m tired of being told I should have known better when we built a house here in B. Mesa in 1998!

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