Prospect of living by the rigs
BATTLEMENT MESA — Darrell and Ronde Settle stood Tuesday at the top of a hillside across the street from their mobile home and peered over the edge.
“What a trip,” Darrell Settle said.
“Wow,” added Ronde, as the two contemplated the idea that Ursa Resources is proposing drilling 24 natural gas wells and also operating a wastewater injection well at the bottom of the hill. The proposed pad is within 500 feet of some mobile homes along the hilltop, while some 50, including the Settles’ home, lie within 1,000 feet of the site.
“That’s going to get real noisy if it’s right here. It seems like sound comes up the hill real good,” said Darrell Settle, who hadn’t previously been aware of the proposed location.
Contemplating the proposal inspired Ronde Settle to say she wants to do her part to fight it.
“There’s land all over the place where they could drill, but they’re doing it right here where children are, where we live,” she said. “It takes down the value of your home and creates the possibility of getting sick.”
The Settles live in Battlement Mesa, which is ground zero on the Western Slope for the issue of drilling near homes, a common concern on the Front Range as companies look to produce oil and gas beneath urban areas. But the mobile home park near the proposed Ursa pad may be ground zero even within ground zero in Battlement Mesa due to the proximity of homes.
Ursa already has been drilling from two other pads in the unincorporated development of Battlement Mesa, but its new proposal to drill from two more pads differs because of how close the one pad is to the mobile homes. Under state rules applying to oil and gas facilities in urban areas, it has to seek a waiver from residents living within 500 feet of the pad, or seek a variance from Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission setback rules.
The pad’s proximity to the mobile homes has activists calling it potentially the least safe drilling proposal in the state, an assertion an Ursa official has said is ridiculous.
“I’m not worried about it,” Gary Burris, one of the residents who signed the waiver, said of the proposed drilling near the home he’s lived in for two decades.
His comfort with the idea comes in part from having worked on drilling rigs for about 30 years. He thinks Ursa’s practices, such as the use of soundwalls on its pads, will help reduce the project’s impacts, as will its use of a low-profile rig. Ursa says its rig should be barely visible from the hilltop.
“The drilling rigs they’re using are like (ones) drilling water wells. They’re not very big,” Burris said.
Ursa hopes to be provided latitude from the state and Garfield County on whether and how to use a soundwall at the pad. It says soundwall deployments need to be site-specific, as they can provide benefits in some cases while in others causing problems such as bouncing sound in an undesired direction.
Sound is the main concern for Darrell Settle, who like his wife used to work in the industry. Settle worked on rigs, and appreciates the jobs and economic benefits the oil and gas industry provides.
“I just don’t want to hear the noise,” from drilling, Settle said.
He said he sometimes has been awakened at night from the sound of drilling from a more distant Ursa pad with soundwalls around it.
He said people living within 500 feet will not just hear the drilling but feel the vibrations from it, and he thinks safety is a concern. He said the industry is safer than it used to be, but the possibility of a well blowout that burns down a rig, while remote, is still a concern.
“I was on a rig that had a blowout, so it can happen,” he said. “If you’re within 500 feet of a rig burning to the ground it’s definitely a safety issue.”
Lyle Hock, who lives in a cul-de-sac across the street from Burris, said he’s fine with the idea of Ursa drilling on the hillside below his neighborhood. He thinks government agencies have done a good job stepping up regulations for drilling close to residential areas.
Hock, who doesn’t work for the industry, said he has been impressed by Ursa’s soundwall use, and he knows people living close to other Ursa pads who have been surprised by how quiet its drilling operations are. He also has been happy to see the amount of air quality monitoring that is being done in connection with its local drilling. Fumes from its proposed location aren’t a concern for him, compared to what’s produced by the Battlement Mesa sewage treatment ponds that are near the proposed pad.
“I can’t imagine (oil and gas development) stinks any worse than the ponds down there do. The wind blows the right way and it stinks pretty bad,” he said.
Taking a different view of things is Stephenie Archuleta, whose 7-year-old daughter, Lily, is tall enough to peak over the fence in their backyard and down the hill to the proposed pad site.
All three of her children have asthma, so drilling noise isn’t so much her concern.
“It’s more the odors and whether that’s going to affect my kids’ health. I mean, you know, they’re the most important things in our lives so of course I want them to be healthy. I don’t want to have any problems with that,” she said.
As an inducement for her family to sign the waiver, Ursa offered to pay six months of lot rent, as it also did for some other residents. For Stephenie and her husband Josh, that amounted to $2,400.
“I feel like they could have offered a little more,” she said. “I don’t feel like $2,400 is very much, especially considering the amount of money they’re going to be bringing in from (the pad),” she said.
She said it’s her understanding from her husband, who spoke to Ursa, that there was no negotiating the amount. She said an Ursa representative noted that it already had a surface-use agreement in place for the pad location. She said that while acknowledging the need to get either waivers from residents or a setback variance from the state, he indicated the project was likely to go forward whether the Archuletas wanted it to or not, so it was in their best interest to sign the waiver and get the amount of money Ursa was offering.
So they signed.
“It’s not like we can afford to go anywhere else, and we love where we live right now. I mean, we have a beautiful view,” Archuleta said, looking out to where mountains rose across from the Colorado River below her home.
The Archuletas don’t own their mobile home yet — they’re in the process of buying it. She said they’re not having second thoughts about proceeding with the purchase. She and her husband like the area, it’s hard to find somewhere else to live on their budget, and he has a good job as a plumber.
She’s happy that others are able to make a good living in the oil and gas industry.
“I just don’t like the fact that it’s so close to towns. I’m good with them out farther away,” she said.
RIGHT TO KNOW
Meanwhile, Darrell Settle says he “absolutely” also should have to be asked for his permission for Ursa to drill at the location, even though his home is a bit farther away from it than 500 feet.
“I’m going to hear (the drilling) just as much as the guy who’s 500 feet away,” he said.
The Ursa proposal also has caused activists to criticize Garfield County’s planning process. The county is considering whether to approve a land-use change for the project but didn’t require nearby residents to be notified about county hearings on the matter because they aren’t landowners. Settle agrees with the criticism.
“When (energy companies) are being this intrusive to people it should be required that everybody should have a say in it, that’s for sure,” he said.
Archuleta also said affected residents should be notified of the county proceedings, as did Hock, who hadn’t heard of the pad proposal until being informed by a reporter. Hock said the mobile-home owners “get kind of caught in this whole black hole” about things that might affect them because they don’t own the land beneath their homes.
“I think if (proposed drilling) is that close to the community then they should be talking to the residents here, the people that are living here,” he said.
Burris, while not concerned about the drilling, thinks it will proceed regardless of who’s notified.
“They’re going to do what they’re going to do anyways,” he said with a smile. “They do what they want to, and the heck with everybody else.”