All’s not well among the gas rigs

Jeremy Heiman
Special to the Post Independent
Post Independent Photo/Jim Noelker Valley residents and local media attended a tour of the gas fields in Garfield County sponsored by Western Colorado Congress. Dry Hollow resident Peggy Utesch is pointing at a gas rig near her property.

By Jeremy Heiman

Special to the Post Independent

Living among the gas wells is proving to be a trying experience for some Garfield County residents.

“We have absolutely no say in the development that is going on around us,” said Peggy Utesch, a graphic artist who lives on Johns Drive in the Dry Hollow area south of Silt with her husband, Bob, who runs a woodworking business.

When the Utesches bought their property four years ago, they were not informed by the seller that the mineral rights underneath didn’t come with the deed to the land. She and her neighbors are pretty much stuck with the consequences, now that gas development has begun in earnest.

“All of us here have the heavy traffic and the disturbance, but no say in what goes on,” she complained. A drilling rig towers behind a neighbor’s home less than half a mile down the road, and a hum of motors and machinery is audible at that distance.

“That rig will likely be up for eight weeks,” Utesch said. “For most of the summer, those people will have drilling noise in their faces.”

Bob and Peggy live in a rolling landscape of pastureland and hayfields, with the snow-streaked wall of the Mamm Range as a backdrop to the southwest. But the bucolic feeling of the neighborhood was shattered when gas drilling began.

“We weren’t given any notice that the drilling was going to start,” Utesch said. Drilling rigs just showed up one day.

To the northwest of the Utesch place is a neighbor’s home. Just behind that house, mostly hidden by a high berm, is a site with four producing gas wells, each drilled off on a different angle from the site.

The drilling rigs are gone, and the 10-acre well pad has been bulldozed smooth and reseeded. But on a one-acre site stand the well head “Christmas trees,” tangles of pipes that take the gas to a pipeline, along with the large, steel tanks that hold condensate, the fluids condensed out of the gas as it comes to the surface (see related story).

The earthen berm hides most of the structures, but a ventilation stack rises above the berm, and the sound of a motor-driven dehydrator can be heard 24 hours a day. Although the landowner no longer has the use of that acre of her property, Utesch said, she must still pay property taxes on it.

A gas well may produce for as long as 20 to 30 years, said Doug Dennison, Garfield County’s oil and gas auditor. In that time, one well can bring a gross income of millions of dollars to the company.

The company developing gas resources in the Johns Drive neighborhood is EnCana Oil and Gas (USA) Inc. Utesch said the company’s efforts have been spotty when it comes to reclaiming the 10-acre sites cleared after drilling pads were no longer needed.

“Surface owners can negotiate with drilling companies for reclamation settlements,” she said. “If you’re not a good negotiator, you get nothing.”

Gesturing at several acres of reseeded land on her neighbor’s property a few hundred yards away, she said, “These people have been proactive, so it’s been reclaimed.” But on other nearby well sites, no reclamation has been done.

Tractor trailer tankers come and go from the neighbor’s place daily, hauling off the toxic condensate, day and night, day in and day out.

“We wake up at night, and there’s diesel exhaust coming in our windows,” Utesch said. The tankers bearing condensate from several nearby wells must pass their house, along with other trucks, amounting to 50 to 100 trucks per day, Utesch said.

Diesel exhaust also emanates from active drilling sites, and the smell of various petroleum products wafts across the landscape. Drilling sites each have an open waste pit, known as a “reserve pit,” which may be one source of this odor.

Reserve pits contain primarily discarded drilling mud (the lubricant used in drilling, usually water-based) and fine cuttings produced as drill bits are driven down through layers of rock. Water produced as the drilling passes through aquifers may also end up in the reserve pit.

But mixed with these materials are some of the same petrochemicals found in the condensate tanks, Dennison said.

“If you stand by one of those waste pits,” Utesch said, “it smells like kerosene.”

Utesch said she expects conflicts between gas companies and landowners to multiply as more and more gas wells are placed in Garfield County. Currently, there are about 1,700 wells in the county, but eventually, there could be 10 times that many.

EnCana has built a new well pad within a quarter mile of the Utesches’ house, to the southwest. A drilling rig was expected to arrive on that site Thursday, and four new wells will soon be sunk, adding to the noise and traffic and dust.

“My husband and I both have businesses here, so we can’t just pick up and move away,” Utesch said. Still, they intend to sell their place, even though they expect to take a loss on their investment.

Contact Jeremy Heiman: 945-8515, ext. 534

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