Oil and gas communities: collateral damage or partner at the table?

I recently attended a workshop in western Colorado dedicated to Best Management Practices (BMPs) for oil and gas production. BMPs are the best approaches that are available and achievable--the most effective and practicable means of preventing or reducing undesirable results.

Participants in the workshop included non-profit organizations, industry representatives, government officials, consultants, and academics. An excellent presentation was made by Peggy Utesch, a resident of western Colorado who has been very involved in the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, a community-based organization working to reduce the impacts of oil and gas production in the region.

Peggy discussed a 2006 ground-breaking voluntary agreement between Antero Resources Corporation and residents from the towns of Rifle, Silt and New Castle. The Rifle, Silt, New Castle Community Development Plan was the result of a year of intense, constructive dialogue between community members and Antero. Their goal was to come up with agreed-upon BMPs that "eliminate or minimize adverse impacts from natural gas development on public health and the environment, landowners, and natural resources; enhances the value of natural and landowner resources; and reduces conflict between industry, landowners and the community."

Peggy started down this road because more than 30 wells were drilled within one mile of her home between 2003 and 2005. She counted 100 truck trips per day on her rural dirt road. Accidents that happened amid the development surrounding her home included a gas well blow-out, contamination of her water well, health symptoms from breathing toxic chemicals released by flaring of a nearby waste pit, and more than 35 code violations in 2004 alone.  Peggy even came across an industry memo (not Antero's) that stated "some landowners will be the unfortunate collateral damage of efficient business practices...."

Peggy brought community members together to discuss their concerns, and the landowners decided to approach Antero about engaging in a negotiated agreement.

Their work resulted in a landmark agreement. Among other things, Antero committed to:

  • non-toxic hydraulic fracturing fluids;
  • water testing and monitoring;
  • pitless drilling;
  • clustered development (maximum number of wells on one pad and clustering of pipelines and other infrastructure);
  • avoidance of sensitive areas such as homes, school bus routes, organic farms, waterways, and wildlife migration corridors; and
  • noise and light mitigation near residences.

Peggy reports that Antero has saved money from pitless drilling, less delay and less litigation. While it seems that overall this approach has cost Antero more money than the drilling might have otherwise, Antero is still operating in the area and has decided this is still a worthwhile business activity. 

The decision by all parties to embark on a path toward transparent and constructive dialogue changed residents from "collateral damage" to partners. Each party felt like they gave something up, but they also gained something.

Is this a model for other places?