Methane extraction criticized

Statewide activists voice concerns at meeting

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— Residents of communities throughout Colorado that have been adversely affected by coal bed methane exploration painted a picture Thursday night of local residents locking horns with a state agency unwilling to crack down on big gas companies.

While the activists themselves noted there are many sides to the issues they are discussing, the warning to the Routt County Planning Commission was clear: With coal bed methane exploration, communities need to know exactly what they can do to protect the interests of residents and wildlife. The presentation organized by the Yampa Valley Community Alliance was not related to any specific application.

In Routt County, two companies are currently exploring the earth to try to extract methane (natural) gas from coal deposits by pumping water through coal until methane is released. Phillips Petroleum already has four wells on an area of land that borders California Park north of Hayden. KLT Gas is drilling 14 wells about 10 miles east of Craig in Routt County.

Coal bed methane gas is extracted by pumping water through coal deposits, which changes the pressure in the coal, and allows the gas like gas in an opened bottle of club soda to be released. The process seems simple enough and the water produced may even be used as drinking water in the city of Craig, said Stephen de Albuquerque, an environmental supervisor with Phillips Petroleum.

But some of the unintended consequences in other counties have included flooding of huge areas of ranchland, possible methane seepage into drinking water and half-hearted attempts by gas companies at reclamation of disturbed land. Three members of the Division of Wildlife also spoke about the potential danger to wildlife when habitats are disturbed. When communities have gone to the state oil and gas board charged with regulating the industry, however, the board has let the gas companies off too easily, said a number of presenters Thursday night who came from places such as Grand Valley, Garfield County and the San Juan Valley.

Brian Macke of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said the regulators have not overlooked alleged environmental violations.

Routt County may be especially prepared to handle some of these issues.

"We're in a much better position than some of these other counties," said Caryn Fox of the Planning Commission, which made Phillips and KLT get special-use permits before drilling.

Gas companies can buy mineral rights from the owner of those rights (which is sometimes not the owner of the land that sits over those minerals) and then go to the state to get permission to start drilling. Local governments do have a say in land-use issues, such as where roads are built, and can make recommendations or requests to the state but do not have the final say over whether a well is allowed.

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