Piceance ranchers live with drilling | PostIndependent.com

Piceance ranchers live with drilling

Post Independent/Donna Gray

To some, oil and gas companies have been very accommodatingJerry Oldland looked out over the verdant hay fields of his Piceance Creek ranch last week and spoke about his efforts to continue ranching in the face of natural gas development. Piceance Creek flows west and north through its narrow valley to the White River. The valley is home to a handful of ranching families and one of the nation’s largest deer herds. Besides growing hay and alfalfa to feed their cattle, the ranchers make their primary living guiding hunters in the fall.The ranches – some of them, like the Oldland’s, established 100 years ago – are found in the narrow Piceance Creek Valley, watered by the often chancy creek. Here the winters are hard and long, summers all too brief, and the threat of drought always present.Ranchers like the Oldlands have managed to remain on the land for generations, and they work hard to keep their way of life viable for their children. Now, in addition to the already difficult challenge of making agriculture support their families, ranchers in the basin contend with a new force, natural gas development.

Surrounding the narrow ribbon of green that is the valley bottom are the tawny, sage-covered hills where ranchers graze their stock in the summer. Now the shaley hills of the Green River geologic formation are aswarm with drilling rigs and natural gas processing plants. Even the valley is not immune. The Piceance Creek road, the only paved road through the basin, is humming with truck traffic serving the gas fields. Gas pipeline snake along the valley for miles next to the creek. Wednesday, miles of pipe sections, scattered on the valley floor like pick-up sticks, were arranged on the ground ready to be sunk in a trench, read to carry gas from the basin to markets in the Midwest and East.Unlike many of his neighbors to the south and west – notably in Garfield County, which has some landowners pitted against gas developers – Oldland has forged a workable peace with gas producers. They have drilled wells and run pipelines through his hay fields and rangeland, but he in turn has won concessions he is satisfied with. Oldland does not own the mineral rights beneath his land. In this often contentious split estate situation, surface landowners who do not own the minerals beneath their land cannot prevent mineral developers from entering their private property to drill for and produce minerals that they own or lease.Despite not being able to stop development, Oldland applauds gas development companies like EnCana for accommodating him in their development plans.”EnCana has worked hard to get along with people on Piceance Creek,” Oldland told a group of conservation district members, local government representatives and elected officials last week.Oldland has a surface use agreement with several companies that stipulates he receive monetary compensation for the loss of hunting revenue during the fall when oil and gas activity take place on the hills above the ranch.

EnCana has also worked with neighboring rancher Cheryl Johnson to avoid areas where cows give birth to their calves.Both Oldland and Johnson also said they have also benefited from contributions EnCana has made to a county weed program. This year, the company gave $60,000 to help ranchers eradicate noxious weeds on their land.”We’re working with 25 landowners who are still living off the land,” said Phyllis Lake, weed coordinator with the Farm Services Administration in Meeker. Lake said the reason the program is so successful is the commitment of local ranchers who want to ensure their children can continue to live off the land.This year, with the infusion of cash from EnCana, Lake said she was able to hire a person to spray weeds on local ranches. But she also said she must be ever vigilant. She’s noticed new weeds sprouting up that she believes have been brought into the basin on the tires of oil and gas trucks driving the dirt roads that link the Piceance to points south and west.Funding for the weed program comes from several state and federal sources, as well as Rio Blanco County, and flows through the local conservation districts.”It’s been very effective,” Johnson said. “It’s improved the good forage.”But some in this remote corner of northwest Colorado worry about the future of gas development, as they watch it accelerate in Garfield County and remember their own experience with the energy boom and bust of the 1970s and ’80s.

At that time, the Piceance Basin was the epicenter of oil shale development, which left as abruptly as it came. As the oil shale tide receded, it left economic depression in its wake. Some wonder what the gas patch will look like in 50 years after all the wells are drilled and all the gas has been brought out of the ground.Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele worried that producing wells could change hands over time and if reclamation was not accomplished to everyone’s satisfaction, it could prove difficult to hold a company liable that did not drill the well in the first place.”There really needs to be someone in charge of reclamation,” he said.In fact, such a scenario is already taking place. Steele has seen a large natural gas pipeline change hands a few times.”We as a county don’t know who to get ahold of anymore if there’s a problem,” he said.Contact Donna Gray: 945-8515, ext. 510dgray@postindependent.com

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