Peter Shelton

Split Estate

Posted in At the Movies, Gas Pains, Watch columns by pshelton on October 13, 2009

This is about Split Estate, a film on the oil and gas industry that should be required viewing for everyone living in Colorado, and indeed anywhere the drill rigs are going up.

But first, Scott McInnis needs to down a couple of pints of fracking fluids and relieve us finally of his presence on the political scene. The man is a menace. Our former Congressman is running for governor. (His six terms in Washington were notable for his opposition to wilderness and his repeated introduction of flag-burning amendments.) He is currently running around the state telling whoever will listen that the natural gas industry is leaving Colorado because of new regulations championed by Governor Bill Ritter.

It’s a flat out lie. Last time I looked, we were in a recession, demand was way down, and stockpiled supplies were at all-time highs. Drilling has slowed but the companies haven’t packed up for looser climes. They can afford to bide their time. Still, McInnis asks petulantly, bizarrely, “Have you been to I-70 lately and touched one of those pieces of equipment? They are as cold as a January day.”

Cold is how the oil and gas industry treats people whose farms or residences get in their way. That is the subject of Split Estate. The title refers to the fact that 85 percent of Colorado private property holders own just the surface of their land. The sub-surface, the mineral rights, are owned by somebody else, either the federal government or another individual, who can lease that right to energy companies.

In Colorado and most of the gas-rich Rocky Mountain states, mineral rights trump surface rights. So, if you’re one of the unlucky ones, like the family in the film’s opening sequences, you could wake up one day to find bulldozers leveling a well pad 200 feet from your home. By law the drill rig can be no closer than 150 feet to a residence—that’s one-and-a-half times the height of the rig; just in case it tips over, it won’t crush your kids’ bedroom.

The energy company—it might be Canadian giant EnCana, it might be BP Amoco—doesn’t have to tell you when it’s coming, where it’s drilling or what hydraulic fracturing chemicals it might be injecting into your well water. It doesn’t have to pay you anything. And if you get sick, it can stonewall and deny any responsibility. Because under the Bush-Cheney Energy Act of 2005 the gas drillers are exempt from key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, the Superfund law.

Outrageous? They do it because they can.

Split Estate’s director Debra Anderson is a veteran producer and editor for public television. In this movie she shot much of the emotionally wrenching footage herself, too. She focuses in on Garfield County, on either side of I-70 through Rifle and Silt. This is ground zero. Colorado currently has around 30,000 active wells. Another 30,000 are expected in the next decade. Many counties are being impacted—La Plata County around Durango, San Miguel and Montrose counties, Delta County, Grand County, Rio Blanco up north—but Garfield County seems, perhaps because it is so visible from the freeway, to have been singled out for industrial transformation—from bucolic ranchland to national sacrifice zone in little more than 10 years.

The stories are certainly there, and Anderson tells them with restrained outrage. Or rather, she lets her subjects’ broken hearts and bodies tell the stories for her. I won’t go into a lot of detail here; you should see the film, if not in Telluride then on television on Planet Green’s Reel Impact documentary series commencing later this month. Anderson is in good company. Reel Impact will also screen Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Who Killed the Electric Car, and the global-warming icon An Inconvenient Truth, among others.

The injustice builds in Anderson’s movie, from the merely “inconvenient”—the lights and noise and trucks and dust, the plummeting property values, the weeds and stinking tanks and evaporation ponds—to the personally tragic. One woman in Silt developed an adrenal tumor because of methane in her water. EnCana told her, Your water is safe; just keep a window open in your house to prevent an explosion! Anderson couldn’t interview this woman because she accepted a settlement from the company that stipulates she not talk about her experience.

The most painful story is that of Chris Mobaldi, a vivacious 45-year-old who moved to Rifle from California in 1995. Soon “everything changed.” Her skin “burned” in the shower. She developed bloody eyes, bloody noses that wouldn’t stop. She started losing her sight. She suffered a rare neurological speech impediment that makes her difficult to understand. At 59, she looks like a 90-year-old woman.

Her afflictions are no doubt a result of volatile organic carbon, neurotoxins in the air from close-in wells. The EPA has only recently been able to film the release of these gases using infrared cameras.

There is more. Creeks on fire. The laughable spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Katy Hall, saying of the proprietary ingredients in fracking compounds, “I’ve had it in my mouth. And I’m just fine!”

Ellen and I watched a preview copy of Split Estate together, and when it was over she said, “Well, that brought everything flooding back.” You see, five years ago we learned that the BLM was auctioning off the mineral rights beneath our house in rural Montrose County. The thumper trucks have so far not come crawling up our road. But just living with the possibility is, at times, like having a splitting headache.

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One Response

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  1. cynthia zehm said, on October 19, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Hey, Peter!
    Read your article in the Watch and want to say thanks for writing it. Deb Anderson is a good friend and film industry associate of mine. I went with her to the Wilkinson screening in Telluride. Pretty interesting stuff. Thought I knew a bit about all that – mineral rights vs. surface rights, etc., but didn’t realize the gas & oil industry is virtually unregulated. Yuk!

    Keep up the good work, amigo.
    cz***


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