The Gasman Cometh
The meek shall inherit the earth. But not the mineral rights.
Oilman and miser J. Paul Getty said that. He was the richest man in America in 1957 but famously had a pay phone installed in his own home.
The sentiment is truer than ever. The rush to develop natural gas wells across the country has resulted in fracking-induced earthquakes in Ohio, in poisoned water wells in Wyoming and now, in the words of BLM Uncompahgre Field Manager Barb Sharrow, the “firestorm” in Paonia.
I was riding a chairlift with three Paonia friends last weekend when one of them, bandleader Mike Gwinn, burst out in song: (to a slow reggae beat) Gasman, gasman, leave our valley alone! Gwinn has been writing songs since he was a teenager, but he said, this was his first protest song.
Residents of the North Fork Valley got a rude awakening in December when they learned that 30,000 acres in 22 parcels in and around the towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford had been nominated for oil and gas leasing. It’s happening all over. It happened to Ellen and me when the BLM auctioned off the mineral rights beneath our house, along with about 15,000 other acres of private and public surface in Montrose and Ouray counties, back in 2005. The North Fork folks were surprised in part, I think, because they live a kind of Edenic existence, a wine-making, cherry-growing, off-the-grid, back-to-the-land, public-radio, High Country News kind of progressive, alternative existence. Natural gas development was threatening all around – but not, for peaches sake, right here!
I know you have big corporate backing / our water can’t stand your chemical fracking / your safety standards are sorely lacking / leave our valley alone.
Some of the parcels come right up to the town limits of Paonia and Crawford and cover ground that feeds tributaries of the North Fork and irrigation and drinking water supplies. The community rallied en masse to three meetings in the last month sponsored by the North Fork River Improvement Association and the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council. Upward of 1,000 people came. They are asking the BLM to cancel the lease auction, which is scheduled for August. Sharrow said she received 800 emails on the subject over the holidays.
The letter writers did get a month-long extension of the public comment period to February 9. They want more. They want to call attention to the fact that the BLM’s Resource Management Plan is in need of revision (it was last updated in 1989). They want the Bureau to do a full Environmental Impact Statement rather than the much less-exhaustive Environmental Assessment. Basically, they want to spare their lovely valley the traumas that have befallen Silt and Rifle and Battlement Mesa and Pinedale and Rock Springs and Greeley. Namely, noise and dust and diesel spills and produced water and interminable truck traffic and air pollution and pipelines and compressor pumps and plummeting property values and the general destruction of the life they have known.
We don’t want no gas well drilling / the consequences are truly chilling / it’s your land too that you’d be killing / leave our valley alone.
The problem is, the system is stacked completely in favor of energy development. The BLM’s Sharrow admitted she doesn’t know who nominated the parcels in question. It’s a secret. Industry decides what lands it thinks might lead to Getty-like riches (he made his in Saudi Arabia). The BLM, the agency charged with managing the federally owned minerals, has very little leeway to say no. You’d better hope you have endangered Gunnison sage grouse on your parcel. Or critical elk winter ground. Or you’re butted right up next to a national park. (See Tim DeChristopher.)
Coincidentally, I just read a story in The New Yorker about Steven Donziger, a lawyer who has spent the last 20 years suing Texaco, now Chevron, for the environmental and social catastrophe at Lago Agrio in Ecuador’s Oriente. Lago Agrio was named for Sour Lake, Texas, Texaco’s aptly named hometown.
Chevron makes more in profit every year than the entire GDP of Ecuador, so it’s been an uphill battle. A Chevron lobbyist in Washington, D.C. told Newsweek in 2008: “We can’t let little countries screw around with big companies like this.”
Trying to hold oil and gas companies accountable in Ecuador, Donziger said, “goes against the flow of the entire economy.” I would argue the same is true in the American West.
I know you can make a lot of money / you may not think my song is funny / but the trout are dying down in the Gunnison Zone / leave our valley alone.