How setbacks debate affects Battlement Mesa

How’d you like this in your front yard? Ursa well pad in Battlement Mesa — March 2015 [Photo by Amy Hadden Marsh/KDNK]

If Prop 112 passes this November, it will likely not affect well pad setbacks in Battlement Mesa where Ursa’s 2-stage drilling plans are already underway. But that doesn’t mean residents don’t have a lot to say about it. The Daily Sentinel is currently running an important series of articles by reporter Dennis Webb covering the issues surrounding setbacks.

What is Prop 112?

Proposition 112 as it will appear on the ballot:

Shall there be a change to the Colorado Revised Statutes concerning a statewide minimum distance requirement for new oil and gas development, and, in connection therewith, changing existing distance requirements to require that any new oil and gas development be located at least 2,500 feet from any structure intended for human occupancy and any other area designated by the measure, the state, or a local government and authorizing the state or a local government to increase the minimum distance requirement?

Proposition 112 would only apply to new drilling on private lands. It would not apply to drilling on federal lands. If a landowner owns the mineral rights and says it’s okay to put a well pad in his front yard, the energy company can apply for a setback variance with the state at any time, even if Prop 112 is approved. The purpose of Prop 112 is to protect non-mineral rights (surface) owners. Colorado is a split estate, meaning that parcels of property, or even an entire subdivision, can have surface landowners and separate mineral rights owners. Under split estate there are no protections for surface landowners. Their rights get trampled on by energy companies and mineral rights owners. The purpose behind Proposition 112 is to even the playing field — or in this case oil & gas patch.

Statewide setback controversy plays out in Battlement Mesa

Charlie Farr moved west from Michigan after his doctor recommended he head to a drier climate because of his mild bronchial asthma.

He built his home in Battlement Mesa 20 years ago.

“It’s been really good until a couple of years ago,” he said of life there.

What’s changed, Farr said, is the drilling Ursa Resources has begun in Battlement Mesa, an unincorporated residential development of several thousand residents.

Ursa recently finished drilling and hydraulically fracturing wells on a pad a little more than 800 feet away from Farr’s subdivision. Farr said he and his wife, Donna, live in one of the closest homes to the pad.

He said he’s felt ground vibrations associated with Ursa’s work, and the well pad noise and odors have made it so the Farrs haven’t been able to use their deck for two summers now.

“During the day, if you want to sit out on the deck and just enjoy the weather, it gets so noisy you can’t hear yourself think out there,” he said.

On hot summer nights they’ve been hesitant to turn on their evaporative cooler because it sucks stinky air into the house, he said.

The 78-year-old can’t say Ursa’s operation is making him sicker.

“But it’s certainly not helping,” he said …

Views not so scenic
Residents battle industry over more than 100 wells

The divide in views about drilling by Ursa Resources near homes in Battlement Mesa is reflective of a larger gulf across the state when it comes to oil and gas development in proximity to residential areas.

On one side are homeowners worried about impacts to their health, quality of life and property values.

On the other are industry supporters who say drilling can occur safely in such areas, creating jobs, tax revenues and energy production and allowing people to cash in on their mineral rights …

… Battlement Mesa resident and retiree Larry Forman said he thinks Ursa deserves credit for working to speed up how fast it develops the wells and puts them into production. It is finishing ahead of its required three-year time frame for the first phase.

He also believes Ursa took steps to reduce odors after an instance in which he complained.

Still, “There definitely are odors from time to time — sometimes strong odors,” he said.

Forman and his wife live about 800 feet from one of the Ursa pads, he said. They’ve also coped with noise and vibrations associated with Ursa’s project — some of the worst of that possibly resulting from contractors drilling into a hillside for an associated pipeline project, Forman surmises.

The Formans don’t necessarily think the drilling project is affecting their health.

“You never know. There could be health effects we don’t really recognize,” he said.

He said sometimes his eyes would be irritated, but he wouldn’t know if it might be from something like allergies. He hasn’t experienced symptoms such as headaches or sore throats when odors have been bad.

He said he’ll probably vote for Proposition 112 — which will push oil and gas facilities beyond a 2,500-foot setback — given what he believes is a tendency by the oil and gas commission to approve everything, even when it’s too close to homes …

Even those like Forman who give the industry the benefit of the doubt, when faced with day-to-day living next to a well pad, want greater setbacks. Forman is voting for Prop 112, not because it will help him but because he knows what it’s like to live with drilling only 800 feet from his home.

The next article turns out to be an interesting debate between Anne Foster with Colorado Rising, the group behind Prop 112, and Susan Alvillar, interim director of West Slope Oil & Gas Association, a pro-industry group.

Advocates say Proposition 112 will protect people
Critics claim it’ll destroy a vital trade

Residents under assault, and an industry under assault.

In a nutshell, those respective words may sum up what motivated a 2,500-foot oil and gas drilling setback citizens’ initiative on this fall’s state ballot, and how energy companies view that initiative.

“Coloradans want common-sense setbacks from an industry that threatens their quality of life,” said Anne Lee Foster, an organizer with Colorado Rising, the group behind Proposition 112.

“Basically we’re in battle mode right now, and the fight is for our industry and for our jobs,” said Susan Alvillar, interim executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association …

Again I must point out what’s missing from this debate. Despite industry’s warning that Prop 112 will ban most drilling on private lands, if a private landowner owns the mineral rights and works out an agreement with the energy company he can seek a variance from the state to drill closer than 2500 feet from his home.

“But jobs” is another argument we hear over and over. In this article WSCOGA’s Alvillar claims: “Basically our livelihoods are at stake. We take that very seriously.”

She pointed to estimates by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable free-enterprise think tank predicting that the measure could result in the loss of 147,800 jobs by 2030. A study the group was involved with also projects a loss of more than $1 billion annually in state and local tax revenues by 2030.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis: “Colorado’s economy is highly diversified. Major industries include finance, insurance, real estate, professional and business services, agriculture, and tourism.”

Employment in Colorado is not dependent upon any single industry.

This chart from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for Colorado tells us everything we need to know. Out of 3,090,800 workers in Colorado (unemployment rate of 2.9%), only 30,400 people are working in the “Mining and Logging” sector (<1%), and oil & gas is a lesser subset of that total.

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