The county commissioners' jubilant response to Gunnison Energy's new drilling plan for the area 12 miles north of Paonia was deeply troubling. Although Gunnison Energy asserted that it has "the number one and number three producing wells in the Piceance," that's not much to crow about if you know anything about the lifetime of a hydraulically fractured gas well. New wells produce a surge of gas, but like meteors entering our atmosphere, gas wells flame out fast.
Meanwhile, 20 million gallons of North Fork Valley water is required for the process to splinter sandstone a mile underground -- plus the addition of a number of unknown chemicals and sand. As the wellhead coughs back up some of the fracking liquid, the surge of gas peaks -- usually 20 days after it's been drilled. Then, over the next nine months, gas recovery drops significantly. In as quickly as five years, the amount of gas is so diminished the well is effectively dead. Assuming the company that developed it is still around, the well requires remediation.
But on the ground, damage is immediate. Drilling for gas brings on a rush of activity, as trucks sloshing with tons of liquid crawl across the high country. But once drilling finishes a second stage begins. Wells are monitored only sporadically and pipelines are monitored remotely via drones. A decade after a gas field is developed, there's not a whiff of gas or economic benefit. Orphan wells and their rusted pumps are scattered throughout oil country -- drive through rural Oklahoma and Texas and you'll see the ruins. The danger is that blight like that in our country sticks around, perhaps forever.
Contrast that with agriculture, which is what Delta County Commissioners say they are trying to protect and save with the Master Plan and revised land use regulations. In 2015, there were 1,329 agriculture jobs in Delta County, and by 2016 that number had grown to 1,362 jobs. During that period, mining and oil and gas jobs dropped from 398 to 192 due to the closing of coal mines.
Gunnison Energy plans to goose that number of jobs to 400, though job takers will mostly come from elsewhere. While I believe Gunnison Energy has the right to develop its leases and land, I also believe that communities have the right to protect themselves, particularly as they reinvent their local economy apart from the world of boom and bust.
Any drilling accident near a waterway puts at risk a huge portion of those 1,362 jobs in agriculture. Before coal and gas, there were fruit trees and beef cattle. Now, coal is nearly exhausted and eventually gas will be gone, too. Agriculture in the North Fork is diverse, giving us fruit and beef but also wine, hops, hemp and organic vegetables. There is much to be gained by embracing renewable energy development as well.
This March, General Electric finally revealed a startling statistic about their struggling as turbine businesses: From 2015-2017, sales of turbines dropped by 50 percent. As oil and gas analyst David Heikkinen put in the Barron's Business Journal: Generalist investors believe the terminal investment period for oil and gas is 15-30 years from now.
In other words, gas is going away. The bust is in sight. So I ask the Delta County Commissioners to consider that their jobs are not to be promoters of fast-buck growth, but stewards of what lasts -- the land and water that the North Fork Valley depends on.
New York City
Commercial/real estate investor