Niobrara Oil Boom: Weld County

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4min 54sec

If you’re listening to the radio from somewhere along Colorado’s Front Range, then you’re likely standing above a fresh discovery that’s worth billions of dollars. I’m talking about something called the Niobrara. It’s an ancient layer of Earth thousands of feet down. Oil and gas companies have spent the the past year and half drilling down to the Niobrara using advanced techniques like fracking and directional drilling to coax that oil and gas to the surface. This activity is causing a lot of friction, especially in communities unaccustomed to oil exploration. We’ll bring you those stories later this week. Today we’re going to leave that controversy aside to travel to the boom’s epicenter, Weld County, where CPR’s Zachary Barr takes a tour with one of the boom’s biggest supporters, County Commissioner Sean Conway.

Other installments of our Niobrara series:

Part 2: Front Range Officials Struggle to Have a Say

Part 3: Colorado Springs, Oil Company Spar Over Open Land

Part 4: Oil Fever Reaches Historic Dearfield

REPORTER ZACHARY BARR: At the Doubletree restaurant in Platteville, County Commissioner Sean Conway slides into a booth and orders lunch.

SEAN CONWAY: I’m going to have a cheeseburger but I don’t want lettuce and tomato, just the bacon.

REPORTER: Conway’s a Republican, and he takes every chance he can to talk up the benefits of Weld County’s oil boom. Spend some time with him, and you’ll often hear this line:

CONWAY: This is not just a generational find. It’s a once in a century find.

REPORTER: And for Weld County, that’s saying something. Oil exploration has a long history here - going back nearly a century. But this latest find is huge. Oil companies can now access deep deposits they never could before. So suddenly the Niobrara, stretching from Colorado Springs up into Wyoming and Nebraska, could yield as many as two billion barrels of oil. Conway remembers when he heard about the first well that tapped this new potential.

CONWAY: EOG, a company I had not heard of, came into the office to introduce themselves. And they essentially said, yeah, we believe we’ve hit a substantial find, over 2000 barrels a day - which is unheard of this part of the country.

REPORTER: In the well’s first 3 months, it produced an eye-popping 4 million dollars of crude oil, plus some not so valuable natural gas.

CONWAY: Since that time 31 oil and gas companies have walked through my office.

REPORTER: Commissioner Conway’s thrilled all these companies have moved in. He believes what’s good for energy companies is good for Weld County. To show us the impact, he’s going to take us on a driving tour of the county.

CONWAY: Our first stop is going to be the Clarion hotel.

REPORTER: The Clarion is a nondescript hotel in Greeley, on the edge of downtown.

CONWAY: Greeley has the highest occupancy rate of hotels in the state of Colorado.

REPORTER: Eighty percent of the city’s hotel rooms were booked last year. Oil and gas workers are a big reason why, as rig workers arrive and need housing fast. The boom’s also creating office jobs, as we see in a light industrial zone outside of town.

CONWAY: OK, this building six months ago didn’t exist.

REPORTER: 250 people work for Anadarko in this brand new building.

CONWAY: Here’s PDC Energy, another company that’s coming to town. They’ve just built this building.

REPORTER: PDC Energy joins drilling giants Noble, Haliburton and many others who’ve set up shot in Weld County. And to visit a well being drilled right now, Conway turns the car around and heads back towards town.

CONWAY: They have discovered oil and gas underneath the college right here in the heart of Greeley, West Greeley.

MARSI LIDELL: On the northern most border of our campus, we are allowing Synergy Energy to drill 15 wells.

REPORTER: Marsi Liddell’s president of Aims Community college.

LIDELL: And then we will get royalties from those, we anticipate that will be somewhere around $350,000 dollars a year.

REPORTER: Most mineral rights owners don’t see checks that large. But extra income is flowing into many people’s accounts. After all, the active well count is approaching 20,000. And this could go on for decades. Back at the Doubletree, Conway says you only need to wait a few more days to better understand what this all economic activity means for Weld County.

CONWAY: May 1, 2012 is the day everybody has to pay their property taxes.

REPORTER: And that means oil and gas companies will be writing big checks. In 2010, before the boom really took hold, they paid 42 million in property taxes. That’s more than 20% of the entire county budget. Conway predicts this year’s total will be significantly more.

CONWAY: I think that the windfall that we’re going to experience on May 1 is going to stun people.

REPORTER: But others are feeling stunned for different reasons. Tomorrow and Thursday, we’ll travel outside Weld County to meet people who are upset drilling’s taking place near their homes.

Zachary Barr, Colorado Public Radio News

[Photo: Z. Barr/CPR]