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Drill Bits

November 7, 2007, 12:00 am
Galisteo driller left behind critics in Canada.

Four years ago and 2,000 miles away, the residents of a small bedroom community in northeastern British Columbia armed themselves with a PowerPoint presentation and made their stand against a privately held energy company. ***image1***

Weeks earlier they'd learned that Samson Canada had bought the rights to drill for natural gas, literally, right under them. The wells, both Samson and the residents of Charlie Lake knew, produced hydrogen sulphide "sour gas." The vapors would stink like rotten eggs; if a well leaked or flared, the fumes could be fatal.

To address their concerns, Samson held public hearings, and that's where the residents met Samson's president, Bill Dirks.

That name will ring familiar to residents of Santa Fe County's Galisteo Basin, who have also only recently discovered that a small oil exploration company has bought up 68,000 acres of mineral rights beneath them and plans to drill for light-sweet crude oil. The company is Tecton Energy, and Dirks is its chief executive officer.

Dirks' history is repeating itself in the Galisteo Basin, and the tribulations of the residents of Old Hope Road in Charlie Lake should serve as a cautionary tale.

The Sierra Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit environmental law firm, documented a host of problems that emerged from Samson's sour-gas drilling in Charlie Lake and neighboring Fort St. John. In 2004, for example, a well leaked near an elementary school in Fort St. John. They evacuated and, from then on, whenever Samson was drilling it hired three buses to remain parked in front of the school, engines running, just in case.

But when Samson's land men began knocking on the doors of Old Hope Road in Charlie Lake, the residents decided to fight.

"We were opposed to it as soon as we found out and we tried to do everything possible to stop them," Mike Kroecher, a resident of Charlie Lake for more than 40 years, tells SFR. "The Samson executives [Dirks included] were all smiles and they said they were going to consider our points. In the end, nothing whatsoever affected their plans."

Rick Koeschl, one of Kroecher's neighbors, is less pessimistic about the community's impact. After residents showed up at meetings armed with PowerPoint presentations, Dirks responded with an emergency plan that included all-terrain vehicles and sour-gas sensors. In the end, Koeschl estimates the community's stubbornness cost Samson double what it had expected to drill that single well.

Eventually, Samson decided to cash out. Dirks says the company had promised it wouldn't use a certain type of loud compressor to extract the gas. When it became clear that's exactly what was needed, Samson sold its rights rather than break the commitment.

The buyer: Terra Energy, a company Koeschl and Kroecher describe as far more aggressive, which, to this day, is still drilling in the area.

"Dirks earned my respect over time and I think the only letdown is that they left so suddenly," Koeschl says. "We knew immediately that was the end of a reasonably productive thing. We'd be starting over. One company literally becomes another overnight and as a result we end up fighting the good fight again and again."

On Nov. 1, Dirks' new company, Tecton, held its second public meeting in Santa Fe at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center with more than 350 concerned citizens attending.

Under New Mexico law, owning property does not guarantee a landowner the rights to what lies beneath the surface. Frequently, these rights belong to another party. If Tecton gets the go-ahead from county and state governments, property owners will be legally compelled to allow Tecton on their lands to drill.

Tecton believes the land contains between 50 million and 100 million barrels of oil-less than what the entire nation uses in a week. Tecton has already reopened the Black Ferrell #1 well off County Route 55-A. In the next year it plans to re-enter two more existing wells and drill six new ones.

Tecton's top investor is Quantum Energy Partners, a private equity firm that specializes in investing in smaller energy sources.

"We've made so much money from assets the Exxons and Chevrons of the world let go,'' Quantum co-founder Wil VanLoh told Bloomberg in March. "…But the management teams we deal with can get filthy rich off of that, and they do.''

At the public meeting, Dirks took a beating as attendees called him a puppet of the oil industry, a hoarder of blood money and a corruptor of politicians, among other names.

"It was not the most pleasant way to spend an evening, but if you're going to take on projects like that one, you've got to be willing to stand up and let people know who you are," Dirks tells SFR. "That's the only way to do it."

And, according to Santa Fe's brethren in Charlie Lake, opposing the drilling at every stage is the only way to undo Dirks' plans.

"If I could send a message to your group in Galisteo, tell them we're with them in spirit," Koeschl says. "I believe they are doing exactly what we had to do, obviously in greater number, and potentially with even more fervor. We Canadians, we're a little more polite about things like that, eh?"


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