After resident suit settles, GARDAP seeks to regroup

After resident suit settles, GARDAP seeks to regroup

Source:, April 6, 2014
By: Corey Paul

Rodriguez is still upset, and so are the members of the group he leads, the Gardendale Accountability Project. They are just less vocal now, he said, regrouping after the loss of a few members and the lawsuit that settled in October 2013.

Wood and Leverett versus Berry Petroleum. Two GARDAP members, Joe Paul Wood and Shane Leverett, sued the oil company for what they claimed was undue nuisance on their land, health risks and safety risks.

They claimed in court documents that Berry Petroleum poisoned the ground near the wells with toxic drilling waste and the company’s oil and gas production made the airstrip on Wood’s land unusable. They asked for $15 million.

GARDAP members raised myriad concerns. They filed dozens of air complaints made to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, worried aloud about sickness from natural gas emissions and kept a group-maintained site with blogs and video that opposed the noise of truck traffic and other disturbances. They protested to local news outlets and appeared en masse at a September forum at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

National media paid attention to the conflict.

A June article by Bloomberg News likened Gardendale’s complaints to communities outside Texas, in energy production areas such as Pennsylvania and described the town as an “unlikely bellwether for shale gas drilling activity in Europe and Asia,” because most of the residents in the West Texas community do not own their mineral rights, common to ownership abroad.

In Gardendale and the broader Odessa and Midland area, some residentsmet the GARDAP protests with criticism: They knew their homes were in the oil patch and their fight was a losing one.

In 2011, a group of Gardendale residents including Wood and Leverett a the Gardendale Landowners Association fought for a special election initiative that would allow the town to incorporate, meaning residents could set up a local government to enact laws and limit what companies could do on their land. The May election that year brought a high turnout of 62 percent of registered voters. The vote was not to incorporate.

The suit against Berry Petroleum began a year later. As it progressed, GARDAP members focused efforts on supporting that lawsuit, Rodriguez said. They got quieter.

“We took things as far as we could reasonably take it,” said Dan Boggs, a Gardendale resident and former president who ended up resigning from the group to distance him as he engaged more in the legal proceedings.

The hope, according to him and others, was a precedent.

Before a non-disclosure agreement prevented him and Wood from speaking about the conflict, Leverett said he hoped for a precedent too: that there might be some greater mechanism for limiting the encroachment of oil activity on residential communities without the zoning powers of municipal government. Like Gardendale.

 “I think it’s going to test what Texas law does to protect a surface owner,” Steve Hershberger, Leverett and Wood’s attorney told the Odessa American a year ago, when the legal dispute was in full swing. (He declined to discuss the case recently, citing the non-disclosure agreement, and Rob Crumpler, an attorney for Berry Petroleum in Midland, did not respond to requests for comment).

But a precedent did not happen. The president of the organization at the time, Ray Moseley, who replaced Boggs, would step down as president. By that time, involved in the suit, Leverett and Wood had departed the group.

The “Berry Scar” protest memorial that Leverett built on some of his land by a tank battery — with a trailer that read “Big Oil, Small People” and “Gardenhell Scar” — disappeared sometime after the settlement. And a for-sale sign appeared in front of Leverett’s home.

Rodriguez said he thought winning a precedent was a “pipe dream” but that he and his fellow members do not resent the settlement.

“They did what was best for them,” Rodriguez said. “We are happy for them.”

And GARDAP is regrouping. Rodriguez became president a few months ago.

“I don’t think we can beat them,” Rodriguez said. “We can only make it hard for them.”

But he said the emphasis is working with the oil company, which is now LINN Energy after its acquisition of Berry Petroleum finalized in December. So far, he said GARDAP has no problem with LINN Energy and none of the members’ homes have seen new drilling activity yet.

There are many, but GARDAP’s chief goals are encouraging closed-water pits and encouraging horizontal drilling to reduce the surface presence and distance new wells from homes, Rodriguez said.

“They can drill wherever they want to without disrupting our land,” Rodriguez said. “But they don’t want to because it costs more.”

LINN Energy declined to respond to questions for this article via Annalee Gulley, a spokeswoman for the company with KGBTexas Communications. But Gulley released a statement on behalf of Sarah Nordin, a LINN Energy representative: “To our knowledge, GARDAP has not reached out to LINN Energy since the acquisition of Berry Petroleum in December 2013.”

The statement went on to refer to a website that LINN Energy took over from Berry Petroleum, created by a public relations firm in 2011 to address community concerns.

That site, Common Ground Gardendale, reports LINN Energy’s future development plans “remain consistent with those that Berry previously shared with the Gardendale community”: to drill about 140 wells on 40-acre spacing in and around the town during the next several years, or, if a pilot study finds its worthwhile, up to 160 additional wells on 20-acre spacing.

There is also the ongoing construction of pipeline infrastructure to a central tank battery finished in 2012 that the company’s site reports will reduce some truck traffic. In 2013, 31 wells were drilled, according to the site.

None of it ameliorates GARDAP members’ worries, Rodriguez said. He lives in a mobile home with his wife and children in Gardendale, where he owns six acres. His mother lives in a home next door. It’s his land to the east of his mobile home that he said drew him into the conflict between the group of Gardendale residents and the oil company.

In 2012, he said, the landmen came to his house and staked the land where he keeps his Barbado sheep, the pens of wolf hybrids he breeds, the cow and his water well. It is where he planned to put another home.

“Is my 88-year-old mother going to have to wear a hard hat and be H2S trained?” said Rodriguez, who also worried about workers being able to see his family come in and out of his home because he does not know their backgrounds.

 Even though the oil company never drilled on the land, Rodriguez said he is prohibited from building by the oil company’s stake and unable to sell, since the property value plummeted.

“I can’t build it, I can’t sell it,” Rodriguez said. “But I’m paying taxes on it.”

Rodriguez took his concerns to the September forum, where he spoke with Kirk Edwards, the president of Las Colinas Energy Partners. Edwards suggested a lawyer could better address his concern but “to me it’s not right that you can stake somewhere and not let people build there.”

Edwards said he feels sympathy for the residents bothered by the oil and gas production in Gardendale, but argues that oil companies have a right to minerals and expects not much to come of the protest.

“The people of Gardendale bought their land out there many years ago, never ever thinking that oil and gas drilling and production could ever or would ever happen on their property, and so densely as the places out there are they got into a natural conflict,” said Edwards, who added advancing technology might alleviate the tension. “You certainly feel for a resident that has a drilling rig or a pumping unit a hundred feet from their home.”

He also points to a subtlety the contributes to the Gardendale dispute: Most residents do not see royalties from the oil production because the rights to minerals below their town traded hands many times before they ever lived there.

Rodriguez said that fact is not lost on him either. He, like many of the GARDAP members, works in the oil and gas industry — as an instrumentation engineer for a gas plant that he asked the newspaper not to name. They do not oppose oil production, he said, repeating an oft made assertion from members: They oppose the manner of oil production so far in Gardendale. And the plan is to keep at it.

“I don’t think we can win. Can we make it a little bit stickier in their path?” he said. “Yeah.”

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