ROLLING HILLS -- Orvie Stoneking was 65, retired from the railroad after 38 years, when the letter arrived. It bore the letterhead of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and informed Stoneking the land beneath his home was to be auctioned off in an oil and gas lease.
Development could result in physical alterations to his property, the letter said, though it noted that land leased to oil companies is not always drilled.
At first, Stoneking and his wife, Marcella, were confused. They wondered what anyone would want with their 5-acre plot.
The couple live on a dirt drive in the community of Rolling Hills, which occupies a windswept plateau overlooking the North Platte River just north of Glenrock. They keep 20 chickens, six horses and two cows.
Look to the west and a smattering of homes dot the open prairie. Look to the east and the brown fields are spliced by state Route 95. There’s no space for a drilling rig here, the Stonekings thought. Somebody must have made a mistake.
People are also reading…
Somebody had not.
The land beneath the Stonekings' home was part of a wider 240-acre lease offered by the BLM for oil and gas development. The initial proposal called for the leasing of land beneath Rolling Hills, but that plan was later amended. Bureau rules prevent the agency from leasing land beneath an incorporated community.
The Stonekings' home is not officially inside Rolling Hills’ borders, so the earth beneath their house remained on the auction block. Oil companies’ ability to drill horizontal wells as far as 9,000 feet mean that a drilling rig could be placed almost two miles away and a hole could still be drilled beneath their residence.
The couple sent a petition to the BLM protesting the sale. It was signed by people living in 72 of the 90 residences in Rolling Hills. Drilling beneath their homes might pollute their water wells, they wrote.
“If they deplete or contaminate my water, I have nothing,” Stoneking said.
He spoke from a seat at his kitchen table, a pile of letters and maps spread out before him. Letters from the BLM. Letters from Wyoming’s congressional delegation. A BLM map of the leased parcel, which is actually broken out into three sections: two 40-acre sections near Rolling Hills and another, larger parcel north of town.
“My house wouldn’t sell for five cents,” he continued.
The BLM refused to accept the Stonekings' petition. Only individual letters of protest are accepted. The bureau changed the reference number for the parcel to be leased, and in the end, only seven of the 72 protests were accepted.
At an Aug. 3 auction in Cheyenne, Chesapeake Energy paid $170 an acre, or a little more than $40,000, to lease the parcel.
“I can’t believe what it took me 38 years to amass they can take away in one auction that lasted maybe 15 minutes in Cheyenne,” Stoneking said. “That’s amazing to me.”
Rolling Hills, population 440, sits at an energy crossroads. Duke Energy’s Top of the World wind farm is the backdrop to the town’s collection of ranchettes.
The smokestacks of the Dave Johnston power plant are visible in the opposite direction, rising from the river valley around Glenrock. Oil production in the region is increasing.
The nearly 7.1 million barrels produced in the first nine months of 2014 in Converse County is more than the 5.4 million barrels produced in the county during all of 2012.
Rolling Hills has largely been a bystander in the latest wave of development, an outpost passed by trucks headed to and from the oil fields along the increasingly busy state Route 95.
Most new oil production in Converse County has centered on Douglas or stretched along the county line with Campbell County, farther to the north.
That doesn’t mean the community is a stranger to the industry. Many of the homes here were built during the oil boom of the 1970s, and much of the area has been leased by BLM before.
A parcel beneath the Stonekings' property and other homes in the area was leased continuously between 1976 and 2006, though it was never developed.
Stoneking said he had suspected that his land was underlain by federal minerals, but he never gave it much thought until the letter announcing the upcoming auction arrived last year.
It remains unclear whether Chesapeake will drill here. The company declined comment on its future plans. BLM officials said the Oklahoma City-based firm has not submitted a permit application to drill wells on the leased land.
Chris Hite, who oversees the bureau’s leasing program in Wyoming, said the BLM shares residents’ concerns about groundwater. That is why the bureau ensures that an inspector is on site when the well is drilled to make sure proper precautions are taken to safeguard human health and the environment.
The bureau also places stipulations on a lease to ensure that water resources are protected, he noted. In the case of the Rolling Hills lease, an oil well cannot be drilled within 500 feet of a drinking water well. Further stipulations could be placed on the company when it applies for a drilling permit, he said.
“We try to make the best environmental decision and put restraints on any lease that is sold that fit the conditions on the ground,” Hite said. “We can lease areas that underlay residential properties. We do it all the time actually.”
A Chesapeake representative, asked to respond to residents’ concerns, referred inquiries to the company’s corporate responsibility report.
It lists protection of employees, stakeholders and the environment as a tenant of the company’s operations and notes that the company installs multiple layers of protective casing on its wells to prevent pollution.
But the integrity of such casing is increasingly a matter of public debate. A pair of recent studies linked groundwater contamination to faulty well construction in Pennsylvania and Texas, respectively.
Gas from the wells migrated from lower geologic levels, where gas was produced, through cracks in the well casing and up into drinking water aquifers, the studies found.
It is not entirely clear how many homes sit above the earth leased by the BLM. Hite put the number at less than 10 but said it is difficult to determine from satellite imagery whether some of the dots on the map are homes or barns.
The Stonekings estimate there are six homes included inside the leasing area.
Sitting at his kitchen table, Stoneking said he has been told repeatedly by the BLM there is no cause for concern. He is not buying it.
He retrieved a newspaper story from the mountain of paperwork on the table before him and pointed to a headline: “Wyoming heads nation's list of unchecked oil and gas wells.”
An investigation by the Associated Press found that some 3,400 high-risk wells drilled on federal lands had gone uninspected between 2009 and 2012. Wyoming led the nation in uninspected high risk wells with 632.
“Living on a private water well, that makes me real confident,” Stoneking said.
Beverly Gorny, a BLM spokeswoman, said the bureau has completed inspections on all its high-risk wells this year and last year. Any well drilled near a residential water supply would be classified as a high-risk well and prioritized for future inspection, she said.
Asked if she would be comfortable with an oil well being drilled beneath her home given the current level of BLM oversight, Gorny replied “absolutely.”
Orvie Stoneking’s son works as a natural gas compressor mechanic. He makes a nice salary. The benefits are good. Many of Stoneking’s friends work in the oil field.
“I don’t want to see those jobs go away. I’m not an environmentalist,” he said. “They threw me into this fight. All I was asking is don’t drill underneath a private water well.”
He has received no offer of help from the state’s congressional delegation. In a letter, U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi expressed concern over a bill that would regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso noted the existence of the same bill but didn’t say whether he supports it or not. Rep. Cynthia Lummis lauded Wyoming’s oversight of drilling activities.
Stoneking wandered outside into a cold drizzle to point out where he suspects a drilling rig would be located if the lease is ever developed.
He motioned with his hand in the direction of state Route 95. Beyond it, the prairie unfolded as a series of undulating hills. The rig would likely go there, he said.
He shook his head. He’s tired of the letter writing. He’s tired of trying to coax information out of the BLM about what may or may not happen. He’s tired of trying to compile information about the dangers drilling might pose to his water.
He lit a cigarette. Maybe Chesapeake won’t drill here after all, he said, somewhat hopefully. The optimistic tone quickly hardened.
All this open space. Why do they have to drill here, he wondered aloud. He shook his head again and snuffed out his cigarette on the ground.
Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow