Students at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale had the opportunity to ask energy officials and experts some hard-hitting questions recently. At the first session this year of EcoFlight’s Kestrel Student Project, a roundtable discussion was held on May 23 to introduce students to one of Colorado’s most contentious environmental issues – natural gas development.
The evening’s discussion focused on the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale, which has 81 property leases held by gas companies such as Encana, Williams and SG Interests. The Thompson Divide Coalition, a broad base of local ranchers, hunters, fishermen, recreationalists, conservationists and community leaders, is working to convince these leaseholders to let their leases expire. Most are 10-year leases that would expire before 2013 if they have not been used.
The seminar featured Steve Bennett, field manager at the BLM Colorado River Valley office; Kathy Friesen, environmental liaison, Encana Oil and Gas Inc.; Peter Hart, conservation analyst and staff attorney for Wilderness Workshop; Judy Fox-Perry, grassroots coordinator for the Thompson Divide Coalition (TDC); and local rancher Jason Sewell, a fifth-generation rancher in Thompson Creek.
On May 24, as a follow-up to the discussion, the students flew with EcoFlight to see for themselves the area where drilling is proposed and other areas where drilling has occurred. Though the weather made the flying a challenge, the students were able to gain a perspective that few people get to experience by flying over the still pristine Thompson Divide area and over to private land energy development near Rifle.
“The flight gave us a visual perspective of the proximity to people’s homes,” one student said flying over natural gas development near Rifle.
Another student commented that “the meeting and the flight caused me to realize what a prevalent issue natural gas is in this valley and that we all depend on natural gas.” Seeing the high density of natural gas drilling from the air and realizing that the drilling is very close to the Roaring Fork Valley had the most impact on the majority of participants.
During the seminar, students brought up the controversial hydraulic fracturing -or “fracking” – process of injecting liquid to split the rock and allow gas to be released. The chemicals in this liquid have been blamed for health conditions allegedly resulting from polluted drinking water in other parts of the state.
Friesen’s response was that the depth at which the chemicals are used is far below the water table and theoretically poses no risk. Water flows from the east side of Thompson Divide into the Crystal River. Some of it ends up as Carbondale’s drinking water supply.
Regulations to prevent pollution and mitigate environmental damage are extensive, insisted Bennett. But students were not convinced, pressing him with questions such as, “How do you contain the fracking fluids?” and “What criteria do companies have to fulfill before drilling?”
Bennett said that the fracking fluids are confined to the chamber where the gas is contained and are pumped out with the gas. To the second question, he answered that there were vigorous stipulations and regulations in place.
When a student presented the challenge that if gas companies are exempt from the clean air and water act, how can we be assured that they are not harming the environment or the local population, Bennett replied that any problem would likely conflict with regulation and the perpetrator would be required to mitigate the issue.
Conservation analyst Hart called Thompson Divide, “the piece of the puzzle that connects surrounding national forest and wilderness habitat to the main stem of the Rocky Mountains,” making it an area of national importance.
“It’s more than just ‘not in my backyard’,” he said.
Hart describes environmental protection as “an uphill battle” against the mentality that it’s better to use the land than to leave it pristine.
Friesen said that Encana does not have any interest in developing their leases on Thompson Divide and will let them expire. Their interests, she explained, lie farther west in the area between De Beque and Silt. But regarding the question of other companies’ interest in drilling, Hart revealed that there was an exploratory-well proposal filed a month ago, meaning that interest in development is far from dead.
Lea Linse is a sophomore at Colorado Rocky Mountain School.