Fracking Next to a Cemetery? 10 Unlikely Sites Targeted for Drilling

A new report finds fault with attempts to lease public land for energy development.

Last November, when 6,700 acres of public land in Colorado were auctioned for oil and gas drilling, one lot came with an unusual caveat: It held an active graveyard.

Kanza Cemetery sits on a 320-acre expanse east of Colorado Springs offered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The rural graveyard, where more than a hundred people are buried, has been there for at least a century. Its land was leased for $26 an acre.

The cemetery is one of several eyebrow-raising sites caught up in the U.S. rush to drill for oil and gas. Companies eager to capitalize on the boom have nominated tracts beneath or adjacent to farms, historic sites, art installations, and even whole towns. A report released today by the Western Values Project, a conservation group, offers a rundown of questionable nominations.

Most prospects on the list ultimately got nixed, WVP says, largely because of reforms the BLM finalized in 2010. The federal process, however, remains inefficient and puts sensitive areas at risk, according to the group. "In the eyes of certain companies, almost no place should be off-limits to development," says the report.

No Public Opposition at Kanza

The oil and gas industry nominated more than 12 million acres of public land for leasing in 2013, more than twice as much as the year before. The BLM weeds out illegal or unfeasible plots, then conducts an environmental assessment on the remainder, allowing public comment during the process. A 30-day protest period precedes the sale of any lease.

No one filed a protest of the lease for Kanza, which sits a few miles outside Rush, a town of about 600 people marked by a cafe and post office.

"I really see nothing that's going to be hurtful to us," says Barb Payne, who was born in Rush. Her farmer-rancher husband, Robert, is the cemetery's sexton, and both sets of their parents are buried there.

The BLM noted in its assessment of the lease sale that it would be able to move any proposed well location 200 meters (656 feet), which would protect the graveyard surface. Technically, though, that leaves room for drilling operations within sight and earshot of funerals and visitors.

Over cookies and lemonade at the Paynes' home, a BLM representative informed them about the auction and its implications. She says they were assured that the graves would not be disturbed.

Companies have snapped up leases around Rush, but none has started drilling—yet. Payne says many of the town's farmers and ranchers are gone now, and for the absentee landowners who still hold mineral rights, "they're going to want those minerals to be developed."

Most of the town's residents rely on wells for water. Payne and her husband leased some of their land to a company—she couldn't remember the name—that came to do seismographic testing just recently. "They were very, very, very good about our irrigation," she says. "They were very careful."

What about the prospect of noise and traffic if development comes?

"You know what, honey, to us life is not a perfect situation," Payne says. "I think people that don't have any minerals … are vindictive because they're jealous of people that do."

It's not clear whether Rush will see wells drilled anytime soon. Leaseholder Fox Valley Holdings did not respond to requests for comment. Kathleen Sgamma of the industry group Western Energy Alliance says that oil and gas companies typically acquire leases first and then do the type of testing the Paynes saw: "Often that seismic work determines what leases are a good bet."

A Fight for Conservation in Wyoming

In another case documented by WVP, private land that was donated for conservation in Wyoming is also slated for leasing because the subsurface rights belong to the government.

Frank Maurer, one of the landowners of the parcel on Sundance Mesa Ranch, says he scrambled to file his protest before the March 6 deadline. Because of "a tragic goof" with his attorney, he says, an initial BLM notification letter in October never made it to him, while a second letter dated February 4 didn't arrive until February 18.

Maurer is a stone carver and biologist who operates a farm west of Davis, California, and considers Wyoming "one of the last frontiers of the continental United States." He and five other landowners established conservation easements at Sundance Mesa to protect sage-grouse and other wildlife there.

If someone from the East looked at his land, Maurer says, "They would say, 'What on Earth is this? Why do you care about this at all?' Because it's just a sea of sagebrush."

Maurer notes the sagebrush is a crucial ecosystem for birds, lizards, and mammals. When it comes to the brush and sage-grouse, Maurer says, "they need it, and when it goes, they're gone. It's like polar bears and ice."

He worries about the impact not just from drilling itself, but from the noise and road-building that come with it.

More Master Leasing Plans Needed?

Part of the policy BLM adopted in 2010 includes master leasing plans that require environmental analysis of a region before leases are issued. WVP Director Chris Saeger welcomes the change, but his group wants to see more of that advance planning.

"We would rather be smart from the beginning," he says. "It's part of the reason we released this report."

Sgamma counters that BLM already has a process in place to evaluate leases, and that the master leasing plan is "another layer of land use planning. It's being used by groups like Western Values Project to further delay energy development on public lands."

She also took exception to one listing in the WVP report: an art installation adjacent to a nominated parcel in Utah.

"A single artist determining that her work requires 'an unimpeded view to the horizon' does not automatically trump the public's right to the energy it owns beneath the land," she says.

BLM is working on master leasing plans in several states to head off unsuitable leases. Utah, for example, is preparing one for Moab, and Colorado is reevaluating the strategy for drinking water reservoirs near Denver.

"We take our responsibility to facilitate energy development—in the right way, in the right places, right from the beginning—very seriously," says Megan Crandall, spokesperson for BLM's office in Utah.

Still, master leasing plans won't necessarily cover every untenable site.

Maurer will find out within the next two months whether his protest against drilling on Wyoming's Sundance Mesa is successful. If not, he says, he will ask any future leaseholder to drill directionally from adjacent land.

"It isn't just protecting an area. It isn't just an easement that's being challenged," Maurer says. "The flow of my whole life, my being, my raison d'être—everything is there."

The top ten featured sites in the Western Values Project report:

10. Desert Art: "City," Nevada. Thousands of acres surrounding the sculpture were nominated for a December 2014 lease sale but were not approved.

9. Conservation Easements: Sommers-Grindstone Conservation Easement, Wyoming. Nominated for sale last November, the land "had been purchased to help offset impacts from extensive drilling" nearby, the report says. The sale was not approved.

8. Iconic Western Landscapes: Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Thousands of acres nominated last year were rejected by BLM because of impacts on "world-renowned landspeed racing and filming activities," among other concerns.

7. Significant Historic Sites: Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Colorado. "This historic site honors scores of men, women and children from a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho who were killed by federal troops in 1864," says the report. BLM rejected the 2013 lease nomination.

6. Sacred Places: Kanza Cemetery, Colorado. The cemetery's land was leased last November.

5. Already Hazardous Areas: U.S. Magnesium Superfund Site, Utah. "Drilling for oil and gas could impede … clean-up" at the site, says the report. The 2013 nomination did not go through.

4. National Parks: Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah. A lawsuit stopped attempted 2008 leases, the report says.

3. Farms: North Fork Valley, Colorado. WVP writes, "The oil and gas industry has repeatedly sought to lease thousands of acres throughout the valley, including along irrigation ditches that water organic farms and vineyards."

2. Drinking Water: Denver and the Front Range's Drinking Water Reservoirs, Colorado. "In 2011 and again in 2013, the industry tried to obtain several leases in South Park, which provides approximately 40 percent of Denver and Aurora's drinking water," the report says. The nominations were rejected.

1. Towns and Communities: Cebolla, New Mexico. "The industry is actively seeking to lease land beneath Cebolla's homes and ranches," says the report.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

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