Statewide setback controversy plays out in Battlement Mesa
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) – 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.
On the other side of the well pad, in an apartment complex also a bit more than 800 feet from the pad, a handful of residents randomly contacted by The Daily Sentinel generally had far less critical things to say about Ursa’s drilling.
McKayla Bieser, who moved to her apartment about a month and a half ago, said about the only negative she’s noticed from the pad is the noise.
“Other than that, it feeds my family,” she said of such drilling projects.
Her reference was to her husband’s previous drilling-rig work, which he quit to take another job so he could work closer to home because they’re now expecting a baby.
As Bieser spoke, a slightly sweet, hydrocarbon smell of the kind noticeable at some oil and gas operations seemed to hang in the air. She said the air was stagnant that evening, and usually evening breezes eliminate the odor.
The smell’s a price she’s willing to pay for a project that provides lucrative jobs for people she knows – jobs that pay better than her husband’s current one.
“I have a couple of friends who work over there,” she said, motioning toward the Ursa site.
A STATEWIDE DIVIDE
The divide in views about drilling 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.
Those on each side of the issue are looking ahead with a mix of anticipation and anxiety regarding the fate of Proposition 112 on this fall’s ballot.
It would require that new oil and gas development occur at least 2,500 feet from homes and other occupied structures, and vulnerable areas such as community water sources, recreation areas and rivers and streams. The state’s current setback from homes is 500 feet, and companies can drill even closer if they meet certain regulatory provisions.
Much of the measure’s impetus comes from drilling conflicts on the Front Range, but the Battlement Mesa drilling serves as a Western Slope example of the debate.
“They’re definitely an impacted community,” Anne Lee Foster, an organizer with Colorado Rising, the group behind the ballot measure, said of Battlement Mesa.
“I’ve been following along the fight down there. It’s very similar to what’s going on up here.
“Our main concern is really the health impacts and the quality-of-life impacts that oil and gas has when it comes to neighbors and schools and playgrounds. They’re definitely experiencing that,” Foster said.
“I think there are people that are concerned that what can happen in Battlement Mesa can happen elsewhere,” said Dave Devanney, with the group Battlement Concerned Citizens.
He considers a 2,500-foot setback “certainly a reasonable minimum.”
“If the industry and the regulators won’t be responsible to citizen concerns, the only next available alternative is the ballot issue,” he said.
“It will shut down oil and gas in Garfield County,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said of the ballot measure, which county commissioners oppose.
That said, he acknowledges the effects that drilling near homes can have.
“It would be so much easier if our laws, if we didn’t have split estate,” he said, referring to the fact that in Colorado one entity can own land and another can own the underlying minerals.
“It is definitely an impact to have drilling within 500 feet of neighborhoods. There’s no doubt it’s impactful,” he said. “. And at the same time the gas company or the person that owns the mineral rights has a property right as well, so it makes it very difficult for us as commissioners.”
Garfield County only had a say over Ursa’s Battlement Mesa drilling project because the zoning for Battlement Mesa specified that oil and gas development requires a special use permit from the county. The project also has been subject to state regulatory approval.
Ursa is pursuing a two-phase project to drill more than 100 wells altogether in Battlement Mesa from four pads. It has completed drilling and hydraulic fracturing for the first, two-pad phase. It has county approval for the second, two-pad phase but is still awaiting a decision from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on a pad that would be just more than 500 feet from a residential area, and also include a wastewater injection well.
That agency has received more than 400 comments associated with the pad proposal. Initially, Ursa proposed locating pad facilities closer than 500 feet from several homes, including one pad within 340 feet of a home. Ursa faced trying to get a variance from the state because it was unable to get a waiver from the 500-foot setback requirement from one of the homeowners. It since has proposed relocating production equipment on the pad so it would be 512 feet from the closest home.
Ursa’s approvals to drill in Battlement Mesa have included numerous conditions of approval by the county and state, and the company has pointed to a long list of measures it is taking to reduce impacts. These include smaller rigs that are less visible and require fewer truck trips to move; erecting sound walls around pads; incorporating downward-pointing, shrouded lights to reduce glare; paying more than $100,000 altogether over the two project phases for independently conducted air-quality monitoring by the county; and monitoring noise levels.
The company also has worked to reduce the number of pads needed within Battlement Mesa to develop the minerals beneath it, tapping more of the underlying gas from pads surrounding the community.
Ursa didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story. Don Simpson, a vice president who was Ursa’s primary media contact, recently retired.
Jankovsky said a positive thing about the drilling project is that he doesn’t think “you can find a better operator” than Ursa in terms of working with residents and having public meetings about its project.
“I think they’ve been responsive,” Jankovsky said.
John Doose, a landman for Ursa, told the oil and gas commission in its meeting in Rifle in September that he works hard to listen to residents.
Ursa official Matt Honeycutt told Garfield commissioners this summer that the company had some odor complaints earlier in the year, with May having been “a tough month for us” in terms of dealing with odors. He said workers were monitoring constantly for odors and later determined most of them were associated with one of its pads outside Battlement Mesa.
“We made some adjustments and the odors ceased,” he said.
He said tanks on one of the Battlement Mesa pads also were emitting occasional odors, so Ursa drained and cleaned them, fixing the problem.
Farr, the retiree from Michigan, has mixed feelings about Proposition 112.
“I wish they would have come up with something in between the 500 and 2,500 (feet),” he said, referring to the current and proposed setbacks.
“I think the 2,500 might be a little extreme, although given our (he and his wife’s) experiences here we’re both pretty negative on that type of issue right now. I don’t think the . media’s probably given enough exposure to what the people here in Battlement Mesa have had to go through.”
He said there have been times when he and his wife have spent the day at her daughter’s house in Delta because the smells were so bad where they live.
“I’m not going to exaggerate and say it’s making me sick. It’s just that it’s pretty annoying to have to leave your home because it stinks so bad because there are fumes out there,” he said.
He said that, not being a doctor, he can’t say the drilling has caused him health problems. But he worries that by the time any studies might show an impact from drilling near homes the damage already will be done, and he wonders why companies need to drill so close to homes when there are so many other places to drill.