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On the north slope of the Grand Mesa in Colorado, a cattle ranch sits in the Plateau Valley that has been owned and operated by the same family for four generations. They raise hay and pasture on about 1,500 acres of irrigated ground, both owned and leased, grow alfalfa and grass hay, and set a few acres aside for small grains. During the summer, they run their cattle on National Forest land — 60,000 acres that they share with 10 other ranchers. What many people might not realize about ranches like these is that the energy industry is a big part of their lives.
Carlyle Currier’s great grandfather bought his first farm in 1891, and the current ranch in 1906. “The legacy of such long-term ownership,” said Currier “gives you a real sense of the importance of caring for the land. You certainly can’t profitably farm the same ground for more than a century without taking good care of the resources.” With a son currently studying agriculture business at CSU, Currier is not only taking care of the legacy left to him, but securing that legacy for the fifth generation of ranchers and beyond. Gas drilling is an important part of this legacy, and has been for decades.
“Gas drilling has been a part of the ranch my entire life,” said Currier, “the first well was drilled in 1958 when my grandfather owned the ranch. There were several wells drilled in the late 1970s and then about 20 more in the last decade.” The ranchers and energy companies work together to keep these relationships working. “We have, of course, witnessed huge changes in the way the energy companies operated over the years,” said Currier, “but they have all generally, with a very few exceptions, treated us with respect and tried to work with whatever request we have made concerning well pad locations, timing of drilling, and protection of our property.” These relationships have had incredible benefits for the Currier family and their ranch.
One of Currier’s ranches had very poor access, meaning that they would have to shuttle hay more than a mile to the road to be hauled to the home ranch. However, the gas company built a road and bridge, which has solved a lot of these accessibility issues. Currier and his wife spent the first 20 years of the marriage in a house more than a century old, “really two log cabins moved together,” as he described it. “Eight years ago, we were able to build a very nice new home, largely paid for by gas activities.” It has also allowed him to travel, and helped his children through their educations and by allowing them to go on mission trips abroad.
Of course, gas has also meant that the family can invest in the ranch. “We have been able to upgrade much of our equipment and still have less debt.” He has converted much of the ranch from flood to sprinkler irrigation, which helps with labor requirements and improved crop yields, but also has environmental benefits as it means water is used more efficiently and improved water quality. This additional gas revenue also means helping others in the community. Currier has been able to hire additional help, giving him time to work in his community, both by serving on boards and volunteering for charitable organizations.
What could threaten this symbiotic relationship? The government, of course. Currier is concerned “that inflexible new regulations will make it more difficult to meet such requests in the future.” In Colorado, a battle is brewing. Democrat U.S. Representative Jared Polis has put his considerable wealth behind ballot initiatives on restricting oil and gas production which are likely to increase Republican turnout in November. His fellow Democrat, Governor Hickenlooper, is trying to prevent this by calling a special session, saying that these issues are best legislated than sent to a direct vote. Polis has thrown Colorado Democrats into a tailspin over these issues, especially those, like Hickenlooper and Senator Mark Udall, who have to win voters around the state.
One of Polis’ initiatives is to increase setbacks (the distance of a well from a dwelling) by up to 1500%. As current regulations were put into place less than a year ago, it’s no surprise that ranchers like Currier wonder where regulations will stop. “Oil and gas has been the spark of the recovery for Colorado and these initiatives would destroy that,” says Stan Dempsey, head of the Colorado Petroleum Association told Time. “Why [Polis] thinks that only he has the perfect solution rather than the experts at the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is beyond me.”
Previous regulations have mostly been limited to safety, with which nearly everyone is on board, but these regulations are different. Not only would setbacks greatly reduce the amount of land which could be drilled, it takes away the rights of property owners to make those decisions. Karen Crummy with advocacy group Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy, and Energy Independence said that these initiatives would mean “the government coming and telling people what they can do with their own property.” For farmers, this isn’t just about extra income, either. Gas wells are what “keeps them afloat in times of drought.” They can currently work with energy companies to determine well placement, but proposed regulations would leave very little room for negotiation. That would likely mean a farmer would have to decide between drilling and crop space, and that has repercussions beyond that particular farm. Jon Haubert of Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development said “when we talk about bans or extended moratoriums on fracking, we’re talking about stopping a process that is absolutely critical to developing our vast energy resources and intentionally forfeiting billions in economic activity and tax revenue.”
Around the country, ranches that have worked with gas production for generations are having those relationships threatened. Ranchers like Currier might find that their way of life will change drastically, and those effects will ripple throughout their communities. Let’s support the right of private citizens to decide what is best for their land and their families. The government can just stay out of it.Published in