Tempers flare over natural gas exemption to state fire ban | PostIndependent.com

Tempers flare over natural gas exemption to state fire ban

With wildfire dangers at an all time high, and a statewide open fire ban in place, why are natural gas exploration companies allowed to flare their wells in western Garfield County?

That was perhaps the hottest question posed at a natural gas forum in Silt Tuesday night. The answer came from two sources.

Brian Macke, deputy director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the torch-like flames are just carbon dioxide, water vapor and heat.

“There are no particulates,” said Macke, one of four panelists who fielded questions. “There has never been a wildfire in Colorado caused by flaring.”

Don DeFord, Garfield County’s attorney, said Gov. Bill Owens reviewed his ban on open fires on Tuesday, and exempted gas-fueled fires.

DeFord’s statement drew groans and a few hoots from the standing-room-only crowd at the Silt Community Center. Other than that, the forum was mostly cordial.

The panel included Macke, oil and gas attorney Lance Astrella, former Garfield County Commissioner and Rulison rancher Arnold Mackley, and U.S. Bureau of Land Management representative Steve Bennett.

“The time has come to stop looking at differences (between) neighbors, and start looking at commonalities,” said forum moderator Peggy Utesch, a member of South of Silt Concerned Landowners. “The people are not against natural gas drilling.”

With natural gas companies drilling more wells on private lands south of Silt, residents are facing the same problems and issues that Parachute folks have coped with for the past few years, including: noise, heavy truck traffic on county roads, waste pits that sometimes attract dogs, 24-hour activities, and a complex mix of bureaucratic regulations, state statues and industry practices.

The complexities and uncertainties many rural Silt area residents are confronting prompted Tuesday night’s forum.

“We ran up against what seemed to be a jigsaw puzzle when we tried to get information,” said Utesch.

Through the forum, topics and questions included property owners’ surface rights, the rights of mineral rights owners, the drilling process itself, the role of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the importance of drafting an acceptable minerals leasing agreement.

The most concrete proposal was a request for Garfield County to create a staff position to focus on the gas industry and its impacts on the county and its residents.

“I’ve been trying to get this done for six years,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin after the meeting. “I haven’t been able to convince my other two colleagues yet.”

The topic of waste pits drew a fair amount of panel comments. Pits are constructed next to wells as they are being drilled to contain solid and liquid drilling residue.

Macke said waste pits typically contain drilling mud, bentonite clay, cuttings from inside the well bore, vegetable-based polymers used in the fracking process, and sometimes sawdust.

Macke said algae sometimes blooms on the waste pit ponds. “It is very innocuous,” Macke said of waste pit contents.

Panel member Astrella did not completely agree. “There are a lot of things in the pit. … It’s a big mystery,” Astrella said.

The biggest problem with pits, Astrella said, is they are never tested. “Therein lies the problem,” he said.

Astrella said drilling technology has advanced so that waste pits aren’t even necessary.

Macke disputed Astrella’s claim.

“It hasn’t been shown that pitless drilling in western Colorado is economically feasible,” Macke said.

Mackley recommended land owners do a baseline study on their wells or spring water before reaching a surface users agreement with a gas company.

Astrella said such agreements also cover noise, berms, dust control and other surface impacts.

“That’s excellent advice,” Macke said. “You can really nail down the issues folks are concerned with.”

Utesch said representatives from the gas companies were invited to the forum, but declined to attend.

Most of the questions and discussions were informational, but one resident related his experience with a gas company drilling a well 200 yards from his house.

“It’s a horror story,” said Tim Trulove. “Folks, it’s unbelievable if you haven’t experienced it.”

As she left the forum, Grass Mesa resident Tere McGuire said the forum provided some good information, but there’s more to the story.

“Reality is a different ballpark,” McGuire said.

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