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Drilling down a dangerous path 

City Sage

If Colorado Springs had a single founding premise, it would have been this: Keep out ugly stuff!

Unions and Democrats were unwelcome, as were the noisome industries and manufacturers that might employ them. Ours was a community into which the smoke and smells of the Industrial Revolution would never intrude, one that would grow and thrive in cocooned gentility.

Mining? Not here! Steel mills? Fine for Pueblo!

As Mayor John Robinson wrote in 1902, in his introduction to the city's annual reports and financial statements: "Few cities have kept so close to high ideals as has the city of Colorado Springs. From its founding until the present hour, there has been before the minds of its builders the vision of a city of beauty, culture, righteousness and healthfulness — a city, in brief, where, in the words of Aristotle, 'Men may live a common life for a noble end.'"

And, Robinson continued, a few simple factors had created the city's present wealth and would ensure its future prosperity: "...our mountains, our sunshine, and our blue skies."

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Robinson's florid, graceful prose may be beyond the reach of our present elected officials, but they'd all agree anyway.

Robinson well understood that the city's prosperity depended upon growth, the constant influx of new residents and new capital. Cripple Creek's gold would one day be exhausted, Pueblo's dark Satanic mills would fall silent, but our spectacular environment would never fail us. That, combined with the residents' moral excellence, would ensure "steady and uninterrupted" growth.

Mayor, how right you were! The economic pillars — religious nonprofits, the Air Force Academy, the U.S. Olympic Committee and The Broadmoor — are here because of the city's beauty and/or moral character.

That was the best card we had in 1902, and it's still our best card today.

But we're about to discard it and trust in the luck of the draw.

Just as Esau sold Isaac his birthright for a mess of pottage, we may find ourselves trading "our mountains, our sunshine and our blue skies" for a mess of oil and gas. Much of the 21,000-acre Banning Lewis Ranch, long touted as the future of Colorado Springs, is under contract to a petroleum company, which wants to extract gas from a rock formation (the Niobrara Shale) that underlies the property ("From homes to oil," News, July 14).

That may make sense for the company, but not for the city. In exchange for a few hundred jobs and some cash, the city would sell its soul.

Oil and gas exploration and development would not be pretty. In look, feel and smell, they're right out of the late 19th century. It's not clean industry, it's not high-tech. It's the oil bidness — and there's money in it.

How much? In a recent Denver Business Journal story, Cathy Proctor wrote about a proposed oil and gas development on the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range. The range, at 16,200 acres, is about the size of Banning Lewis, and also underlain by the Niobrara Shale. It belongs to the State Land Board, which commissioned a report examining the range's potential from Samuel Gary Jr. & Associates, a respected Denver firm.

"Under an aggressive drilling program," Proctor wrote, "the report said 98 wells could be drilled on the range. Figuring oil prices at $95 per barrel, the land board's royalties could reach nearly $540 million (assuming 20 percent royalties over a 30-year period)."

Ultra Petroleum, the winning bidder for Banning Lewis, has offered $1,444 per acre. That's not much, especially given that the state-owned Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation agreed in January to pay $4,750 per acre for a one-third interest in 800,000 acres of Wyoming and Colorado Niobrara-related mineral rights leases. That's right, just the leases.

What about those 18,000 acres that were to be the future of Colorado Springs? They might be a throwaway. As a knowledgeable friend puts it, "[The buyer] will keep the mineral rights and spin off the land. It's brilliant!"

So imagine this: Ultra comes to our naïve City Council and offers this: "We'll do the most environmentally friendly drilling. All we need is a little water, a revised master plan, and the money will roll in! We'll even pay you a nice little royalty. A few million a year to start! Just trust us ..."

And what'll you bet that Council makes a deal? Forget the mountains, sunshine and blue skies — take the cash!

hazlehurst@csindy.com

  • In exchange for a few hundred jobs and some cash, the city would sell its soul.

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