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A Rural Flare-Up

Throughout the Intermountain West, coalbed methane development is pitting county officials against state regulators, and rural residents against the gas industry.

| Mon Nov. 4, 2002 3:00 AM EST

The fight over coalbed methane drilling on public land in Wyoming's Powder River Basin has captured national attention. But the struggle over methane development is hardly limited to the remote basin's pristine public acres. Throughout the Intermountain West, local battles are flaring over the gas industry's plans to drill for methane on private land -- battles that are pitting concerned citizens and county officials against the methane drillers and state regulators.

For the residents of the rural counties where most coalbed methane development is taking place, the fight to control gas drilling has been an uphill slog. Throughout the west, the rights of private landowners are limited. In most places, mineral rights are split from surface rights -- and the surface owners' rights. Private landowners control only what takes place on the surface. Mining and drilling companies, holding the mineral rights, control what happens underground. In order to reach the resources they hold rights to, private companies can dig or drill on private land -- needing only the approval of state regulators and county commissioners before building roads, laying pipelines and discharging waste water pumped from underground aquifers to free the gas. And, while the state agencies that regulate oil and gas development are required to consider public and environmental health concerns before approving drilling permits, no state commission in the region has ever denied a permit application based on the concerns of private property owners.

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Despite the long odds, a cacophony of opposition to coalbed methane development is rising throughout the region -- and it's being heard loudest in two rural counties in Montana and Colorado. For the first time, concerned citizens have convinced county officials to take a stand against the gas developers and state regulators.

Colorado's Unlikely Battlefield

Colorado's Delta County is not the kind of place you would expect to find at the center of a fight against the energy industry. Coal mines score the arid hillsides on the western slope of the Continental Divide. It is a county of ranches and farms, producing the state's largest apple crop. This campaign season, 'Vote Republican' signs can be seen everywhere. As in much of rural Colorado, the overwhelming majority of Delta County 27,000 residents are political conservatives.

So, when Gunnison Energy Corporation applied to county authorities and the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for permits to drill five exploratory wells, there seemed little reason to expect local opposition. But Delta County residents had watched the changes wrought by coalbed methane drilling in neighboring counties. They had seen aquifer levels drop, property values decline, and wildlife habitat diminish. And they rose to oppose the well permits in unprecedented numbers. An average of 200 county citizens attended the nine public meetings held by Gunnison Energy. Only two residents spoke in favor of the permits.

"People that live here have a very strong connection to the land," says local activist Tara Thomas, executive director of the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council. "We don't want to live in an energy sacrifice zone."

Despite the overwhelming public opposition, the county's three commissioners faced tremendous pressure from industry officials and state regulators to approve the permits. The state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had already signed off on the Gunnison Energy applications, and sent letters urging the county commissioners to stay out of the matter. When the county decided in July to deny four of the wells, and attached 33 conditions to its approval of the fifth, the news caught many in the methane industry off guard.

The gas company promptly sued the county, calling the decision arbitrary. Simultaneously, several dozen county residents, the county commissioners, and the local water companies sued the state regulators, claiming that the oil and gas commission had ignored local sentiment and violated citizens' rights to due process in approving the permits.

Now, Delta County commissioners have joined forces with officials from six other Colorado counties to draft legislation that would force state regulators to delay permit approvals until other involved government agencies -- such as county commissions or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- sign off on the plans.

Delta County Commissioner Jim Ventrello admits the fight is far from over, but he says the tremendous support from the public, combined with the "arrogance of the industry," is enough to keep at it.

"I've had more thank yous on this than any other issue," says Ventrello, a Delta commissioner for the past 11 years. "But we have to be consumed by this and create change, because our water, the lifeblood of this county, is at stake."

The Montana Gambit

Bill Murdock, a county commissioner in Montana's Gallatin County, sounds like an echo of Ventrello when he talks about the oil and gas industry.

"These guys need oversight or they won't do what's right. It's like many extractive industries -- they will keep fighting to do it the wrong way, because a new way costs money."

For the past year, Murdock has played what he refers to as a chess game with New Jersey-based J.M. Huber Corp. The company wants to drill for coalbed methane on 18,000 acres near Bozeman, Mont. State regulators have approved an initial development plan, issuing permits. But county commissioners subsequently denied the company's permit application, citing local land use regulations that prevent oil and gas development.

J.M. Huber responded by suing Gallatin County. Twice. One lawsuit, filed in state court, challenges the county commissioners' authority to review and reject drilling permits. The other, filed in federal court, claims that the county's decision is an unconstitutional taking of property rights.

The company has also tried to bypass the county's objections, moving its proposed well site onto land not protected by the zoning regulations. The county, in turn, approved a one-year moratorium on all drilling permits in the area and is feverishly working to revise its zoning regulations to shield more property from oil and gas development.

"We don't need coalbed methane here and we won't let it come unless they can demonstrate that it's compatible with our lifestyle," Murdock says. "As a government official it's always tempting to tap into a potential revenue stream. But hell, this is my home, I'm not making a deal with the devil so that I can have more money for police cars."

In fact, Gallatin County doesn't need the money that coalbed methane drilling might bring. The county, which borders Yellowstone National Park, is Montana's top locale for both tourism and second home ownership. That could all change, many residents worry, if oil and gas wells are permitted to litter the landscape.

Even if the courts demand that the county approve the J.M. Huber permits, Murdock and his fellow commissioners are determined to do whatever they can to control coalbed methane development. The commission is currently developing a detailed set of regulations that would apply to all well permits -- regulations that would require drillers to submit fire plans, pay for studies to determine if property values would be hurt, and post a bond to cover for any losses by private land owners. In late October, county commissioners approved a measure requiring oil and gas developers to pay a $15,000 fee covering county expenses related to researching and processing well permits.

The steps being taken by Gallatin County officials have delighted local environmentalists. And the emerging partnership between private landowners, county officials and environmental groups is providing a model for others in the region.

"When we first heard about the proposed development, we thought we were hosed. But now our mailing list has grown to 11,000, and people keep saying what we've done is so amazing" says Melissa Frost of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman. "We're feeling a bit empowered. In the back of my head I know that we probably can't stop them for good, but at least we can shape what we want for our community."

In recent weeks, Frost says people from across the country have called her group, seeking more information about how Gallatin County is marshalling its forces in the fight against methane development.

It remains to be seen if Gallatin and Delta represent exceptions to the rule or the leading edge of a growing movement -- just as it remains to be seen if either county will be successful in challenging the plans of the gas industry and the authority of the state regulators. But environmentalists eager for signs of opposition see great promise in what the two counties have been able to achieve.

"This is huge," says Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, based in Durango, Colo. "I think that, due to this growing citizens movement, industry and the responsible agencies will be forced to get in line. It's very exciting."

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