Colorado residents grapple with threat of oil, gas drilling, ask Salazar to withdraw leases

Scores of residents in Colorado’s North Fork Valley aren’t nearly as keen about oil and gas drilling as the wide-eyed Democrats and Republicans who talk about tapping America’s energy reserves.

Representatives from nearly 50 ranches, farm restaurants, farm markets, and food producers sent a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking that he direct the Bureau of Land Management to withdraw all 22 of the proposed lease parcels scheduled to go up for an oil and gas auction in August.

The North Fork Valley.
“The proposal would lease these lands under a flawed land use plan from the 1980s that fails to protect the land, water and people of Colorado’s North Fork,” the letter reads. “The parcels proposed for oil and gas leasing — which include water sources, major irrigation canals, grazing permits and ranching operations — are scattered among and surrounding our farms, our wineries, our farm markets and restaurants, our schools, towns, and communities. No consideration was given in the decades-old land use plan — and therefore no oil and gas stipulations or management prescriptions exist — to maintain the area’s agricultural operations, its businesses, or any of the other unique community features.”

The parcels in question cover about 30,000 acres, mostly on BLM lands near Crawford, Hotchkiss, Paonia, Somerset and the Paonia Reservoir State Park. Only about 900 acres are privately owned. The North Fork Valley — named after a Gunnison River tributary — is home to one of the highest concentrations of organic farms in Colorado and one of just two designated wine regions in the state.

The mere prospect of oil and gas development in the valley is already scaring off home buyers. Real estate brokers report they are losing sales contracts and are putting others on hold as potential home buyers wait to see whether the BLM approves any or all of the 22 proposed leases.

A group of young Coloradans garnered exposure at last month’s Winter X Games in Aspen while protesting drilling in the North Fork Valley and other parts of the high country where companies hold leases. Other protestors have picketed BLM offices in Montrose and elsewhere on the Western Slope. Another group is asking the BLM to place a moratorium on leasing in the North Fork Valley. Hundreds of residents have showed up at four recent public meetings organized by citizen groups.

Oil and gas drilling is causing consternation across Colorado.

Citizens met in Commerce City on Thursday to discuss the potential for hydraulic fracturing in their neighborhoods. There are 20 wells planned in the area and some estimates predict Adams County could have as many as 3,000 wells in the coming years as the state’s drilling industry booms.

Last week, Boulder County commissioners voted unanimously to impose a six-month moratorium on the acceptance of applications from energy companies requesting to drill within their borders.

A new study from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and University of Colorado at Boulder researchers estimates local natural gas producers are losing about 4 percent of their gas to the atmosphere — a finding that could essentially offset the environmental edge that natural gas is purported to enjoy over other fossil fuels, the journal Nature reported this week. The research escalated when methane — which traps more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide — was detected in air samples taken from a monitoring tower north of Denver. The scientists traced it to the Denver-Julesburg Basin where more than 20,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled.

Natural gas, meanwhile, was the resource of emphasis in the energy plan President Obama laid out in his State of the Union address. Claiming the nation has an almost 100-year supply of natural gas that could create more than 600,000 jobs, he said his administration “will take every possible action to safely develop” it. The president called for mandatory disclosures of hydraulic fracturing chemicals. Democrats praised Obama’s speech, many of them supporting his call to drill for more natural gas. Republicans argued the plan doesn’t go far enough. They cried for the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Here in Colorado, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis are behind pleas to President Obama to strengthen environmental and health standards to protect against hydraulic fracturing risks.

Trepidation about the impacts of “fracking,” as the practice is known, has intensified as horror stories like those being told in Pavillion, Wyo., blame air and water contamination on natural gas drilling. The Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft report linking fracking with water contamination there.

Colorado Democrats introduced a bill in the State Legislature that would have required hydraulically fractured oil and gas wells to be set back at least 1,000 feet from any school or residence. But on Monday a legislative committee defeated the setback bill along with a bill that would have required closed-loop tank systems in place of open fluid pits. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association and the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry opposed the legislation. Republican committee members said the bills would have been “job killers.”

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