Paul Potyen: Can we afford it?


Oil and gas development often is touted as the economic driver of rural Western communities despite the important economic role of locally owned, amenity-based development, which includes tourism, skiing, biking, retirees, location-neutral entrepreneurs, agriculture, recreation, hunting and fishing. While oil and gas development has economic benefits, it also has significant costs that threaten our water and air quality, public health and quality of life. 

Water quality

When oil and gas companies drill through potable water strata, does this cause the pollution of domestic wells as seen in various locations? A report issued recently by scientists at Duke University concludes that at least some of that toxic mix is entering water supplies — enough to pollute drinking water.

Air pollution

Oil and gas development is a known contributor to air pollution. Of course, this isn’t breaking news if you’re a resident of Wyoming’s Green River Basin or Utah’s Uinta Basin. Both areas are sparsely populated but have experienced some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country — exceeding that even of major cities like Los Angeles. Fugitive emissions from widespread oil and gas development is the primary cause. And the air pollution is doing more than mar scenic vistas; it also is causing or aggravating respiratory and other health problems among local residents.

Drugs and crime

Many rural communities are experiencing a rise in drug use and drug-related crimes that either correspond with new oil and gas development or, in some cases, is directly linked to development in existing fields. According to a 2007 study, criminal cases involving meth in Mesa County increased by more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2007. The peak came in 2006, when meth was a factor in 89.3 percent of cases before the county’s courts. Related crime and costs to users and others in their families drive up emergency and social service costs.

Natural environment

Residents of Routt County are here in large part because of the beauty of this natural environment. Skiers, bikers and other tourists come here for much the same reason. One of our most inspiring views is from the top of Storm Peak. Would a view that included oil rigs on every 40-acre parcel be attractive to tourists? Would a kayaker enjoy seeing an oil well on the bank of the Yampa River? Would a skier looking west from the top of Mount Werner think that a regional haze from oil and gas development was a good reason to book a reservation for the next season?

More food for thought

■ Strategic leasing and development of a region — such as through phased development and protection of important open spaces — could reduce or prevent these costs.

■ The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s recommendations (they are not laws) are not really enforceable in view of the fact there currently are only 12 field inspectors statewide who are available to inspect 45,000 active wells in the state.

■ The BLM’s recent reforms to oil and gas leasing, incorporating more thorough agency review and local government and public participation, could provide vehicles for more careful development and control of these costs.

■ Health impact analysis could be part of the evaluation of oil and gas development.

■ The oil and gas industry could be required to control air pollution from its development and production operations.

Oil and gas development does bring revenue to our community. The question remains: Is it enough? The character of communities can be harmed, if not forever changed, by the significant fiscal burdens from oil and gas development, burdens that the oil and gas industry does not take on along with their profits.

Paul Potyen

Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley

Steamboat Springs


kathy foos 5 years, 3 months ago

The power plants have scrubbers to clean the air,the oil and gas should be held to the same standards.I liked this article.How can one industry have such an impact as this fracking will surely have and expect the public to just accept it,there is just so much at stake.


Scott Ford 5 years, 3 months ago

Paul - The issues you raise are tough ones to sort through. There are countless externalities (negative and positive) associated with oil and gas development. The reality is that the vast majority of this development in Northwest Colorado will take place in Moffat County.

It is my understanding that except for some unique locations in the western Routt County the geological formation bearing the natural gas is very deep. It is closer to the surface in Moffat County and deeper one has to go to reach the resource - the costs incurred increased exponentially. To put it simply, although Routt County will see some oil and gas development it is not going to be much compared to Moffat County.

The data over the past 20+ years highlights this. On a combined two county basis there are 90% more producing wells in Moffat County. In measuring the energy output of the average individual well, wells in Moffat County are 97% more productive than those in Routt County. To put it simply, this resource is easier to get to and there is an astounding amount more of it in Moffat County than in Routt County. Except in a few unique situations, the return on investment in Routt County is not worth it.

This does not mean that we need to stop being ery diligent about the development that occurs in western Routt County. The externalities are too great not to. However, this is not an issue encapsulated within one county's boarders. It is a regional issue. As long as the wind primarily blows west to east what happens in Moffat County will impact Routt County far more than development activity in Routt County itself.

The folks in Moffat County are well aware of the data regarding the number of wells and productive of their wells. The development of natural resources is far more important to their local economy and government tax base. Are we as citizens of Routt County prepared to tell the citizens of Moffat County what they should do, how to do it and how to do? I am confident that their response, simply put will be, "You and the horse you road in on." We need to guard against being Routt County myopic.


Steve Lewis 5 years, 3 months ago

Scott F, We need to guard against being Routt County myopic? I do not understand this advice. Not in the least.

Air pollution will flow East. It is a macro, regional issue. You covered that. It is also a micro, backyard issue. You suggest what they'll say across the county line. What do you think they will say across the fence from the derrick?.

Groundwater pollution will flow West. But it is exponentially smaller in the geography and people affected. At the same time its effects are probably exponentially larger on a the downstream families. Let's call it a micro issue.

Please run your advice by me again?


Sam Jones 5 years, 3 months ago

Thanks for the concise overview Paul , well said I am open to RESPONSIBLE oil and gas exploration and drilling but like you I think that notion could be an oxymoron when short term monetary interests trump longer term environmental , social and quality of life issues.

Consider this

I took in a new client recently who has lived in Bismark, ND most of his life working for the local utility. He is moving to CO because he said that all the O& G companies have driven the quality of life in ND to a point where he is willing to leave everything he has known and loved behind. He said driving on any of the rural roads with the trains of 18 wheelers carrying many tons of equipment feels life threatening. He said the air is "different" and the composition of those living there has become unattractive (read crime, drugs, adult only establishments). He said the local Native American tribes have banned drilling on their lands and are instead buying potable water rights to sell back to the white man after he poisons his water. He was really sad and depressed

County commissioners please consider the quality of life example above as we don't have lot more than that to sell here in the Yampa Valley. Hate to lose our only "product"


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