BAYFIELD – A fight is brewing in the HD Mountains.
In what was once ground zero for battles over the impact of oil and gas development, the pressure for drilling is back on in the mountain range, just east of Bayfield.
“We see this as a new assault,” said Terri Fitzgerald, who has lived in the HD Mountains for 50 years. “It’s just going to blow this valley up.”
The HD Mountains are a remote, hard-to-access landscape that serves as critical winter habitat for deer and elk, and is home to a vast array of Native American cultural sites, with Chimney Rock National Monument to the east.
But the 35,000-acre mountain range also sits on top of a vast reserve of coal-bed methane, a form of natural gas, which for years has attracted the attention of oil and gas companies looking to extract the resource.
In the 1990s, during the boom years of the oil and gas industry in La Plata County, residents rallied and waged a significant grassroots effort to push back on development in the HD Mountains.
They thought, at the time, their efforts were successful. But now, several proposed new drilling wells, pipelines, roads and a massive compressor station have given landowners a sickening sense of déjà vu.
“This is our backyard,” said Paul Delaney, a resident of the HD Mountains since 1993. “And it just blows my mind they’d consider putting something like that out here.”
In the 1980s, the largest coal-bed methane field in the world was discovered in the San Juan Basin, which spans northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, and kicked off a decade of rampant oil and gas activity.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the community was unprepared at the time for such intense development – wells were built next to homes, groundwater was contaminated and entire subdivisions were evacuated because of methane leaks.
“It was utter chaos,” Lachelt said. “They just kept drilling and drilling and drilling and the community really paid the price.”
In the HD Mountains, hundreds of new wells, as well as the associated infrastructure including roads and pipelines, were proposed. And that’s when landowners organized to fight back.
Through old-fashioned grassroots methods like packing county meetings and pushing local oversight of oil and gas development, landowners were able to stave off uncontrolled drilling.
“The last time I counted, there’s somewhere under 30 wells (in the HD Mountains),” Lachelt said.
Ultimately, grassroots pushback to the impacts of oil and gas throughout the county led to some of the first industry regulations in Colorado, putting La Plata County ahead of the curve as the state now attempts its own massive reform.
Though oil and gas activity in recent years has declined, mostly as a result of low natural gas prices and the discovery of other fields where it is cheaper to drill, there has been a renewed interest in the HD Mountains’ reserves.
Two companies – Catamount Energy Partners and Petrox Resources – which are active in the HD Mountains, are seeking permits through the U.S. Forest Service for new wells, pipelines and access roads.
Calls to these companies for comment were not returned.
And perhaps more concerning to locals, a company called Harvest Midstream is proposing a massive compressor station on the edge of the HD Mountains, to be called the El Toro Compressor Facility.
In natural gas fields, compressor stations are typically located along pipelines every 50 to 100 miles or so as a means of compressing natural gas to make sure flows are at safe volumes to keep the gas moving along the line.
The El Toro Compressor Facility is in the early stages of the La Plata County land-use process, and the company must submit an application by December. Calls to Harvest Midstream, which is headquartered in Texas, were also not returned.
It is unclear what may be driving new activity in an old oil field. Christi Zeller, who heads the Southwest Colorado oil and gas advocacy group the Energy Council, could not be reached in time for this story.
Walt Brown, the Forest Service’s geologist for the region, said the advent of horizontal drilling has allowed companies to reach areas previously off limits, which may be one factor why there’s attention on the HD Mountains.
But while it may seem like there is new interest in the HD Mountains, Brown said many of the proposed projects have been in the works for years. It is only now that projects are surfacing to the public involvement side of things.
“There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes work to get these projects ready for public input,” Brown said.
Catamount and Petrox Resources have permits through the Bureau of Land Management to drill for federal minerals, and because the HDs are located on the national forest, it’s up to the Forest Service to permit the surface activities.
“There’s an expectation of the development of that lease,” Brown said. “It’s a challenging decision, balancing reasonable development of existing leases and natural resource impacts.”
Many locals contend, however, those differing values can’t be balanced.
Petrox’s 8-mile pipeline, for example, would go through a designated Colorado Roadless Area, and one of Catamount’s proposed new pipelines would go through the Spring Creek Archaeological District, a place rife with cultural sites.
Increased access roads and infrastructure are likely to disturb winter habitat for big game, locals say. (There is also concern about a separate Forest Service project that proposes a new motorized road through Armstrong and Long canyons.)
And more than 60 letters of opposition were sent to La Plata County, arguing the El Toro Compressor Facility would bring pollution, noise and extreme fire danger to an agricultural, quiet area.
“The world is changing and they (the oil and gas companies) are trying to get by, by not looking at the cumulative impact,” said David Honea, who has lived in the area since 1973.
Even the Southern Ute Indian Tribe wrote in public comments the station would have “far-reaching impacts that extend well beyond the physical boundaries of the project site.”
The El Toro Compressor Facility was the wake-up call to residents near the HD Mountains that maybe the fight all those years ago hasn’t ended. So now, Delaney said it is time to dust off those grassroots organizing skills, and get to work.
“There’s so many issues,” Delaney said, “it’s beyond absurd.”