As Garfield County Commissioners take up a Battlement Mesa drilling proposal, there’s a glitch in the area’s history of oil and gas agreements. Aspen Public Radio’s Elise Thatcher takes a look at why an important one went missing for nearly a decade.
The missing agreement is dated August 6th, 1990, between the company Battlement Mesa Partners and Denver-based Barrett Resources Corporation. The paperwork later turns up in Garfield County records in 1999. “We were blindsided,” says resident Bill deWinter. He and his wife, Sue, live in one of about a dozen neighborhoods in Battlement Mesa. They bought their house in 1994, so the agreement didn’t appear with their title when they were considering whether to buy the property.
“I don’t know if I can say someone deceived us,” says deWinter, visibly frustrated. “I can say someone who’s a party to this surface use agreement, being Battlement Mesa partners, and all the LLC’s that constituted Battlement Mesa partners, were well aware of the surface agreement that they entered into.”
To be clear, the deWinters did know some kind of drilling was technically possible, since they had a split estate. But they and many other retirees here say they settled in the area because it was marketed for enjoying their golden years with tennis, golf, and other recreational opportunities. In the document they didn’t know about, called a Surface Use Agreement, fourteen drilling pads were allowed, with one well each.
We tried reaching the man who signed that document for Battlement Mesa Partners. David Gitlitz still holds several limited liability companies registered in Battlement Mesa. He’s listed as a Pitkin County resident, with a multi-million dollar home on Red Mountain. During that nine year gap, Gitlitz was battling it out in court with the IRS over his taxes. The issue appears to be related to another development. Gitlitz’s case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where he ended up winning-- and setting a new precedent for how certain kinds of corporations can handle their losses.
We tried Gitlitz at his home, office, and by cell phone, but there was no response. So we weren’t able to ask Mr. Gitlitz directly about why the Battlement Mesa drilling agreement went missing for nine years. Earlier this fall, we did ask the current Battlement Mesa Company president about that. “I don’t know,” says Eric Schmela. “And what’s hard is that I wasn’t a part of any prior real estate transactions prior to me. So I don’t know what any real estate broker said to a buyer during any of those transactions.” Schmela has been leading the company for about ten years now.
But maybe the unrecorded decade wasn't the developers fault. “When the operator...entered into the surface use agreement, they did not record it,” says Grand Junction attorney Nate Keever. He handles lawsuits involving minerals, and says oil and gas operator normally is responsible for formally recording the paperwork.
Keever and several other attorneys interviewed for this story say nine years is an unusually long period of time for a document to go missing. But it’s common for paperwork to take more than a year to get filed, and in this case it’s very possible someone lost or forgot it. “So let’s assume for a minute that there was no surface use agreement,” says Keever. “That doesn’t mean the mineral rights owner cannot come in and get the minerals. It just means you don’t have an agreement covering how they’re going to extract those minerals.”
Emily Hornback is with Western Colorado Congress, a grassroots coalition of West Slope citizen groups. “Battlement Mesa Concerned Citizens has investigated a contract with an outside drilling engineer,” she said in an interview last week, “to help evaluate the geology. Because Ursa has repeatedly said there’s no other way to access these minerals with a safe and cost effective way other than on the two pads that they’re currently proposing.”
Battlement Mesa Concerned Citizens wants to know if drilling from outside Battlement Mesa’s formal boundaries is a viable alternative. The current Ursa Resources drilling proposal has two phases: the first would mean two pads inside the Battlement Mesa boundaries, at a total of more than fifty wells. Phase two would mean at least two pads, possibly near the golf course.
Garfield County commissioners will hold meetings about the issue next week.
Editor’s note: Click below to hear our other stories about Battlement Mesa.