Ranchers learn to live with gas wells
SILT – The road to drilling a gas well begins with building a road.The one leading to a well pad being constructed on Jim Nesbitt’s property offers some bumps, turns and even roads not taken, figuratively as well as literally.Sitting with his wife Jackie in the back seat of Bill Barrett Corp. representative Dan Sullivan’s pickup truck, Nesbitt directed Sullivan to drive onto an old ranch road on Nesbitt’s 170-acre property. Sullivan veered off a well pad access road contractors are constructing.Nesbitt had believed the access road was to have followed the ranch road at that point. He said he and Barrett representatives even talked about road specifications, and about jointly staking out where the road would head.”We actually talked about specific trees that would have to come out,” Nesbitt said.But he woke up one morning to see bulldozers heading off in a different direction, clearing a route through junipers he had thought would be saved.”That was totally contrary to what we agreed upon,” Nesbitt said.Nesbitt considered Barrett’s actions a departure from what he believes has generally been a good relationship between him and the company since they first contacted him this fall about their plans to drill on his land.He said Barrett apologized, “but basically there is no offer of any reparations, no financial redress or anything.”Sullivan patiently hears Nesbitt out as he edges the truck to where the ranch road drops back onto the new access route. Then he responds.”You know, Jim, it’s still open for discussion because we want you to feel comfortable. We’re going to be here for the long run.”
Indeed, that’s Bill Barrett Corp.’s plan. The company was founded by natural gas developer Bill Barrett, who helped kick off Garfield County’s natural gas boom with Barrett Resources Corp., which he sold to Williams Companies in 2001. Bill Barrett is back with plans to drill 80 to 100 wells per year over the next two to three years in Garfield County, and in December his company made its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.Educational effortNesbitt finds himself at ground zero of Barrett’s local drilling plans. He invited a reporter to follow Barrett’s progress in drilling one of its first Garfield County wells since it bought out Calpine this summer, acquiring gas leases and some 70 wells in the county.Nesbitt wants to educate the public about what landowners experience with energy developers, and let people see to what degree one company lives up to its promise to work with residents to minimize the impacts of its drilling.So far, he’s giving Barrett the benefit of the doubt. He said issues such as his concerns with the access road inevitably are going to come up as energy development occurs on private land. Some landowners might believe a company is acting in bad faith, he said. He’s trying to take the approach of working with Barrett and giving it the opportunity to address issues as they come up, he said.”I believe that there are rights on both sides of the equation,” Nesbitt said.Energy developers have paid for mineral rights and invested in producing gas, he said.”It’s their right to come and get it,” he said.But Nesbitt thinks it’s fair to ask a company like Barrett to minimize the impacts of gas development.”It can’t be ideal, it’s not going to be perfect from the other side’s standpoint,” he said. “But by working together it can be fair.”
Nesbitt is satisfied with Barrett’s early performance on several fronts. He said the company has agreed to have a third party test Nesbitt’s water well for flow rate and water quality, and monitor it after drilling.He said the company agreed to change its proposed location for the well pad because the initial site would have taken up good pasture land and been easily visible to neighbors. Instead, Barrett has cleared about 2.5 acres for the well pad in a less obtrusive, unirrigated field of sagebrush.”There couldn’t be a better place on my property to have located this particular well pad,” Nesbitt said.Nesbitt said he met a contractor at the well pad who boards animals at the kennel on Nesbitt’s property. Nesbitt said he had to concede to the contractor that the well pad area looked good – though he still would have preferred no pad at all.Sullivan likes it when residents get to know those who make their living off energy development.”Look at all the names on those trucks,” he said as he pointed to a line of vehicles hauling road material. “That’s a lot of individual haulers, all the way from Fruita, Grand Junction, DeBeque. I like seeing all these people working.”No bullyingWes Dye, a foreman for Brady, thrusts a hand out to Nesbitt to introduce himself as they overlook the well pad.”I’m here to take care of your property,” Dye promises Nesbitt.Glitches remain to be addressed. Nesbitt tells Sullivan that a new culvert under the access road is set up to drain in the wrong direction. Sullivan says it will be fixed. Nesbitt expresses concerns about the access road’s configuration with the main road at his property’s edge.
“We’ll get with you and we’ll dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” on that corner,” Sullivan assures him. He says later, “We’re not perfect; we make mistakes. It’s a matter of how quick you fix them.”His philosophy about drilling? “There’s no irreparable harm, at the end of the day.”Sullivan also believes the energy industry doesn’t always get credit for the benefits it brings. He said the main road accessing Nesbitt’s home and several others was built by the industry and is maintained by it rather than the county.The gas industry arrived in Nesbitt’s neighborhood before he did. The owner of a General Motors dealership in western New York, he bought his Silt property in 1995 before retiring. Even then, a gas pipeline ran beneath his land. Sullivan points to a reclaimed field that once was home to a well pad on a neighbor’s property. The well has since been plugged.Nesbitt put his property on the market four years ago – not out of concern about drilling, he said. He stopped trying to sell it for a while, but relisted it just before being contacted by Barrett. Real estate agents warn that selling it may be harder now. Nesbitt hopes his negotiations with Barrett will make things better for whoever owns the land after him.When Barrett approached Nesbitt, they worked out a surface-use agreement that will provide him some financial compensation for impacts. But he has no mineral rights that he knows of on the property. And there may be no making up for the loss of some of the peace and quiet he once enjoyed from a home on a bluff that affords him views of the Grand Hogback and Flat Tops, across the Colorado River Valley. The roar of more trucks arriving abruptly interrupts the occasional periods of silence on his property, in what is only a preview of what’s to come in the months, and probably years, to come.Barrett may directionally drill up to eight wells from the well pad, and seek to drill from elsewhere on his property. Sullivan said the company is contractually obligated to owners of mineral rights to fully develop the resource.Still, he said, “We don’t want to bully our way in. We want to work with people.”For Barrett and Nesbitt, that work, like work on the well pad, has only just begun.Vail Colorado