Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Frak! Salazar tightens up oil and gas drilling on BLM land

I start no new year without regrets, and a (sure, yes, small) one has been that I didn't have a chance to write about western oil and gas drilling last year. I was given a screener for a documentary called Split Estate, and it was a fascinating look at something I had learned during law school, but never seen in practice: property owners who have "split the estate" such that mineral rights are owned by someone who is extracting them, and the surface rights are owned by someone who works or lives on the land.

Split Estate focuses on Garfield county, Colorado (a state where 85% of landowners don't own their mineral rights) but we've got this going on locally, too, in the Inglewood Oil Field in the Baldwin Hills.

This morning I listened to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar - a former senator from Colorado, who appears in the documentary - announce procedural changes in lease approvals for oil and gas drilling on Bureau of Land Management land. BLM manages hundreds of millions of acres of land, a lot of it in the west, a lot of it with what industry guys might call production possibilities. Almost a year ago, Salazar suspended piles of leases in interior-West states (what Wallace Stegner might have called the West, California just being California to Stegner). Howls of criticism, concern about economic impact, came immediately from the oil and gas industry, and from some state interests.

But back to Split Estate for a second.

Pharmaceutical chemist Carol Bell retired; now she's a farmer.

Her husband Orlyn is a civil engineer, with a water specialty; he retired too.

A few years back they got notice from the mineral rights owners at their property, that they wanted to drill. The Bells wanted the drilling done with as little disruption as possible; a technique called "frakking" injects water and air into the ground, with the aim of shaking loose natural gas and oil between sediment layers. The farmers and the drillers began negotiating. Before they finished, the bulldozers showed up. Colorado regulations provide that even if homeowners don't agree to terms for drilling, oil and gas companies can put up a bond with the state, and drill anyway. (BLM has split estate issues too.) In the Bells' case, that meant a pipeline that sends gas either to Chicago...or Los Angeles. Hearing that was an unexpected way to be reminded that our energy infrastructure - be it transmission or pipelines - is inextricably linked across the west.

More about the film here. It'll be on TV again (Planet Green, I think?) on January 16th & 17th.