In February the Bureau of Land Management auctioned for lease several thousand acres in San Miguel County for oil and gas drilling, of which several lots of approximately 1,000 acres each were put up for lease in subdivisions near Miramonte Reservoir and Gurley Lake Reservoir on Wright's Mesa. The next quarterly auction will take place in May.
The leases sold by the BLM typically last for 10 years. The federal government owns the oil and gas rights to much private land and private land owners, who typically own only the surface of the land, have little to no say in the matter.
"The most alarming part is that property owners don't even know when the subsurface rights are being auctioned," said Curtis Odom, a property owner in Miramonte Ranches and treasurer of that subdivision's homeowners association. "It turns out that when the government does a ten year lease for one of these oil producers, during that time they are given the right to go after what might lie under the surface. The rights of the surface owners are secondary to the rights of the subsurface owner. You can't stop them essentially. The present balance is out of whack."
As a property owner and representative of the HOA, Odom has been trying furiously to get up to speed with the gas lease situation. An architect with an office in Norwood, Odom lives in a house he designed and built in Miramonte Ranches four years ago.
In addition to the threat of seeing an oil rig sprout in his backyard, Odom also pointed to the fact that the area around Miramonte Reservoir and Gurley Reservoir is Gunnison Sage-grouse habitat. Moreover, the Gurley is a source water protection area and the reservoir provides drinking water for many Wright's Mesa residents.
"It is the principle source water area for the entire Wright's Mesa area," said Odom. "If there is a problem they will spoil the source water area. Imagine the repercussions."
Odom is also alarmed by the strength of the law that backs oil producers when they decide to come onto private property.
"Let's say they found a gas pocket and want to come in," he said. "Under the present law they are obligated to negotiate with surface property owners in good faith. In reality, if you sit down as a surface owner with these guys and they don't feel like they are being negotiated with properly, at any time they can simply leave the table and simply bond around it."
Duke Cox, a home builder in Grand Junction and president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, agrees that surface owners have few rights.
"With the leases, they say, 'Here is the deal. We have the right to come on to your property, but because we are so nice, we'll give you a check for $5,000. We can do anything we want, build roads and pipelines, put in compressors, and if you don't like it, tough.' People are intimidated and scared and they sign the surface use agreement. Statutorily the industry is allowed to write a $2,000 bond per acre."
Cox, as a home builder and member of Western Colorado Congress (of which the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance is a part), has been part of a movement to change Colorado law and strengthen the hand of surface owners. That bill, House Bill 1208 sponsored by Kathleen Curry, recently died in committee by one vote. The bill would have provided surface rights owners more protections than they have now.
Though the bill did not make it out of committee, there is a push now to put a citizen's initiated question on the November ballot, Cox said.
Miramonte Ranches and other Wright's Mesa subdivisions sent representatives to the February BLM auction to bid on the leases, but the sale price, $130 per acre, was far above what the property owners felt they could pay. The leases are typically sold in large lots and, indeed, these leases represented lots of approximately 1,000 acres, said Odom.
"We were willing to go to $17 an acre," he said.
In response to growing concerns about an increasing number of oil and gas leases in San Miguel County, the county is holding a seminar on Tuesday, May 3, 6-8 p.m. at the Norwood Community Center. Brian Macke, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, will be present to talk about state regulations. Jamie Sellar-Baker, assistant director of the Dolores office of the BLM will talk about federal process and regulations. Mike Rozycki, county planner, will also be on hand to talk about county regulations.
A second seminar will be held on Monday, May 9, 6-8:30 p.m. at the Norwood Community Center. That seminar, organized by Western Colorado Congress, will focus on what landowners can do to protect themselves. A presentation and question and answer session will be led by Western Colorado Congress energy organizer DeeAnna Woolston, Carolyn Lamb, an attorney with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, and a landowner from Garfield County who has been impacted by gas drilling projects.