There Goes the Neighborhood: Battlement Mesa Residents Gear Up for Gas Drilling

     Battlement Mesa rises above western Colorado’s Grand Valley, north of the tiny town of Parachute, 15 miles west of Rifle and 40 miles east of Grand Junction .  A quiet community of just over 5,000 souls spills across the mesa. It was originally designed in the 1970s as a company town for Exxon oil shale workers but when Exxon pulled out in 1982, it had to find another use for the place.  Exxon added a  golf course and other amenities to make it attractive to retirees and sold the land to Battlement Mesa Parters (BMP) seven years later.  BMP eventually sold it to Battlement Mesa Company.  But, Exxon still owns the mineral rights.

     Sweeping vistas of Mt. Callahan, the Roan Plateau , and the sandstone buttes of Dogs Head Peak surround this 3,200-acre community, luring seniors from as far away as Pennsylvania and Washington State to a life of ease amidst the classic beauty and fresh air of Western Colorado.  The 18-hole golf course winds through the south end of the community, dotted with pinon pines, junipers, and large shade trees.  Birdsong and the thwack of nine-iron against golf ball are the only sounds along the course other than the distant din of I-70 traffic.  An asphalt 4-lane that has seen better days winds up the hill to the top of the mesa, with spurs leading to a grocery store complex, a state-of-the-art community center, and a brand new middle school, heralding yet another incarnation of Battlement Mesa.

      The community lies in the heart of Garfield County’s natural gas fields.  Since the drilling boom of the past decade, local towns have enjoyed years of prosperity and job growth. Workers and their families moved to the mesa, making it a bedroom community for nearby Grand Junction, Rifle, and Glenwood Springs .  These days, it’s just as common to see young mothers pushing strollers and singles working out at the activity center as it is to see retirees on the golf course.  Battlement Mesa has become the American Dream to people of all ages but something happened in late May that may turn it into a nightmare.

      Early in the last week of May, sandwich boards popped up around the community with notices about a meeting on May 27th with Antero Resources  and Battlement Mesa Company.  That meeting marked the end of life as many residents had come to expect it at Battlement Mesa. Antero Resources announced that they had plans to drill up to 200 natural gas wells from 10 pads throughout the community.  The audience, largely made up of homeowners, was caught completely by surprise .  It is fair to say that all of them were angry.  Many felt betrayed by Battlement Mesa Company. 

          Paul Light, who retired here from Philadelphia five years ago, says people were told that gas exploration would never happen within the community.  “We knew that we didn’t own mineral rights,” he says.  “But we had been led to believe by the Battlement Mesa Company many years back that plans [to drill] would not be executed”.  Light is a member of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA), a citizen-advocacy group that was formed in 1997 to help citizens understand what happens when they don’t own the mineral rights beneath their homes and the energy companies who do, want to drill.  Since the fateful meeting of May 27th, GVCA has offered to help Battlement Mesa residents identify their options and navigate the complicated permitting processes that lie ahead. 

     Community members have barely had a moment to catch their breath let alone figure out what their options are.  Antero leases the mineral rights from Exxon, which allows Antero to extract the gas.  The lease agreement requires that the first well be drilled by mid-August.  But, Battlement Mesa’s original development plan has bought residents a little time.  

     The original agreement between Garfield County and Battlement Mesa developers made energy extraction within the community a special use.  Garfield County Commissioner, Tresi Houpt, says this requires “any company that wants to establish a well site within the [development] to come to the County with a special use permit application.”   This means that if Antero wants to drill by mid-August, it needs to begin the special use permitting process at the County level or drill outside community boundaries.  The special use process, now called a major impact review, takes too long for Antero to honor their lease agreement with Exxon; meaning, if the company went through the process, which can take at least 120 days to complete, it would lose its lease.  So, Antero decided to locate its first pad on land immediately west of the southern boundary of the community.  Kevin Kilstrom, who heads up production for Antero, isn’t saying who owns that property until plans are finalized.   

     So, what are residents doing with this reprieve?  Light says they’ve been researching options, sending letters to Governor Bill Ritter and State Senator Josh Penry, attending strategy meetings and a hearing with the State Oil and Gas Commission in Denver.  GVCA also organized a forum on June 23rd at the Battlement Mesa activity center.  To their surprise, a crowd of about 100 people showed up with questions for Garfield County officials, area activists, and representatives of Antero.  Judy Jordan, Garfield County Oil and Gas Liaison, summarized the County and State permitting processes and outlined public comment opportunities. Jim Rada, Public Health Officer for Garfield County, spoke about air and water quality monitoring, and Peggy Utesch, who helped craft the ground-breaking Rifle/Silt/Newcastle Community Development Plan with Antero in 2005 urged residents to become involved in the process.

     If the mood of the meeting was any indication, involvement in the process is the proverbial cart before the horse.  Residents are still stunned by the initial announcement of May 27th.  Questions remain about why homeowners were not notified about drilling plans during the two years of preliminary negotiations between Antero and Battlement Mesa Company.  Chuck Hall, president of the Battlement Mesa Service Association (BMSA), the community homeowners association, was grilled by the crowd about whether he or anyone else involved with the BMSA knew about Antero’s plans prior to May 27th.  Hall denied knowing the plans before anyone else did but the issue remains unresolved for most residents.  Eric Schmela, Battlement Mesa Company president, was noticeably absent from the meeting and one wonders if he feared being tarred and feathered.

    A few residents are outraged over the million dollar good-faith gesture extended to the community by Antero.  As part of the agreement, the energy company has offered to give one million dollars to the BMSA in four, $250,000. installments, to begin whenever Antero starts drilling within community boundaries.  The BMSA can spend it as residents see fit but some aren’t buying.  Why four installments to the BMSA?  Why not smaller amounts to each homeowner to help pay gas bills or offset other impacts? These and other ideas were discussed among residents after the forum, but why not between residents, Antero, and Eric Schmela during those two years of preliminary negotiations? Antero’s Kilstrom says that including all residents in these negotiations was not possible.  “We didn’t intentionally cut out anybody,” he says.  “It wasn’t practical for us to pursue discussions with 5,500 residents of Battlement Mesa when we didn’t have surface locations on them and all of those locations were on Battlement Mesa Partners. It was just key for us to negotiate with the primary surface owner out there at that time.”

     Residents have apparently been angry enough to commandeer a town meeting in early June with Colorado State Senator, Josh Penry.  As a result, Antero received a mild reprimand from Penry in a letter dated June 18, copies of which circulated at Tuesday’s forum:

      I appreciate the fact that Antero has started the process of working with the community by reaching out to local officials and HOA board members, but some area residents expressed a desire for better advance notice on public meetings as well as the ability to engage the company on an ongoing basis on a range of issues, from well placement to various timing and traffic issues.

     I realize of course, that this is the beginning and not the end of the permitting process but I hope you will continue and expand your efforts to provide the public with information and, to the extent possible, accommodate their concerns.

     Energy production is an imperative in this nation. But in cases like these, it is important to find common ground with the communities impacted by drilling. Some conflicts are unavoidable, but great care should be taken to abate those to the extent reasonably possible. 

     Despite the palpable tension of the crowd, a show-of-hands Tuesday night revealed that, if the drilling can’t be stopped, most are in favor of being involved in further discussions with Antero.  These discussions will begin fairly soon at the State level with the Comprehensive Development Plan. The State Oil and Gas Commission is offering a special hearing in Glenwood Springs on July 8th to address the process.  But, one wonders if Antero shot itself in the foot by not including residents in the initial negotiations.   Meanwhile, Battlement Mesa residents have another month or two to enjoy the serenity of the neighborhood before America’s energy needs begin to encroach upon the American Dream.

Stay tuned… and thanks for listening.

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