PAONIA, Colo. » For a glimpse into the complications of President Barack Obama’s "all of the above" energy policy, follow a curling mountain road through the aspens and into central Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where billboards promote "gently grown" fruits and farmers sell fresh milk and raw honey from pay-what-you-can donation boxes.
Here, amid dozens of organic farms, orchards and ranches, the federal government is opening up thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, part of its largest energy lease sale in Colorado since Obama took office.
In all, leases for 114,932 acres of federal land across Colorado are being auctioned off next month — a tiny piece of what Obama lauded during last year’s campaign as a historic effort to increase domestic natural-gas production. Those holes have to be drilled somewhere, and the move to lease public lands in this valley has stirred a fierce debate, one that has aligned Republican residents more closely to the government’s plans than Democrats.
Coloradans in solidly red cities west of here are the ones who have written letters to the government supporting the lease sale, saying it will bring jobs and tax revenues. In Paonia, where political lines are more evenly split, residents have come out overwhelmingly against the idea of drilling, saying it threatens a new economy rooted in tourism, wineries and organic peaches.
"It’s just this land-grab, rape-and-pillage mentality," said Landon Deane, who raises 80 cows on a ranch that sits near several federal parcels being put up for lease. Because of the quirks of mineral ownership in the West, which can divide ownership of land and the minerals under it, one parcel up for bid sits directly below Deane’s fields, where she has recently been thinking of sowing hops for organic beer.
"All it takes is one spill, and we’re toast," she said.
Paonia takes its environmental debates seriously — so much so that in 2003, someone upset over insecticide spraying set off a bomb in the headquarters of the town’s Mosquito Control District (no one was hurt).
For years, activists in town raged against the century-old coal mines located about 10 miles up the road, before eventually reaching a detente with the industry, which provides hundreds of jobs in the valley. Paonia is also home to an award-winning community radio station and the High Country News, a nonprofit newspaper that covers land and environmental issues across the West.
Last week, the forces of government and upset citizens collided like two weather fronts in a packed, stifling town meeting.
Officials from the Bureau of Land Management explained the situation: Under 90-year-old laws, companies and people can nominate public lands for drilling, and the government is obliged to auction them off after months of review and public comment. The officials explained that they had removed some of the most sensitive and contentious pieces of land from consideration and they were still reviewing which parcels tolease, but said the auction was happening.
About 200 residents sat on the floor, lined the walls and spilled into the hallway, jeering and hooting as officials insisted — sometimes patiently, sometimes brusquely — that hydraulic fracturing was safe, and that there would be little environmental impact on the valley. They applauded as Town Council members pressed federal officials on drilling’s effect on the town’s air, water and economy — eliciting responses that were as unsatisfactory to the crowd as a bushel of mealy peaches.
"I can’t guarantee you there won’t be a spill," Lonny Bagley, the land management agency’s deputy state director for energy and minerals, told the audience. "I can’t guarantee there won’t be a blowout."
Paonia’s mayor, Neal Schwieterman, pressed officials on why they had used a 30-year-old resource plan to evaluate whether drilling would mesh with the valley’s lifestyle and growing tourism economy. Why not delay any lease sale, he asked, until the bureau could write a new blueprint for land management in the area?
"People would like it if we said, ‘OK, we’re just going to stop,"’ Helen M. Hankins, the bureau’s state director, told the crowd. "We really don’t have that luxury."
She added: "It’s not the kind of world everybody would like to see."
Real estate and tourism groups have also spoken against the leases, saying that gas rigs and a torrent of new truck traffic would drive away second-home buyers and hurt a tourist trade that has sprung up from almost nothing in the last 15 to 20 years. Proposed gas leases near Dinosaur National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park were met with howls of protest, and the Bureau of Land Management changed or withdrew several of the parcels from the sale because they were on steep slopes or had qualities of wilderness lands.
Sitting quietly in the crowd was Bruce Bertram, who monitors oil and gas activity here in Delta County on behalf of the county commissioners. There have been 27 wells drilled in the county over the last decade, and only one on federal land. Like it or not, he said, drilling was already at the doorstep to the valley.
"Some of the folks aren’t making a good judgment about what’s good and bad," he said. "There’s a built-in distrust of government and business. And that permeates through the whole area."
Even if the land is leased out for drilling, months and years of red tape and public review lie between drillers and the gas-rich rock underneath the tree-covered ridgelines and rolling mesas. Less than one-tenth of the federal lands here in western Colorado leased out for drilling have been developed.
During the presidential campaign, Mitt Romney criticized Obama’s policies for leading to a drop in drilling on public lands, saying that government regulations had made it too slow and cumbersome for companies to get permits.
But much of the decline in Colorado has been because of rock-bottom natural-gas prices — which fell in part because of abundant new supplies — and a boom in oil drilling on private lands in northern Colorado and western North Dakota. In Colorado, the public acres leased out for energy production have fallen, from 97,232 in 2009 to just 4,393 in 2011 and 64,435 last year. Now, with natural gas prices so low, it is an open question whether any energy companies will risk the money and resources to drill in the valley.
But if next month’s lease sale is a sign of a turn in the industry, small farmers like Wayne Talmage worry about the future of a place nicknamed "The American Provence." It has been 40 years since Talmage — a philosophy student — left behind academia to move here to start White Buffalo Farm, which grows organic peaches, apples and pie cherries. One afternoon, as he helped a friend pull crates of cider apples out of cold storage, he pointed to ridgelines towering above his property, where gas wells could one day sit.
"We’re unbelievably blessed by this place here," he said. "We could be unblessed really quickly."