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County postpones new oil and gas regulations
10/3/2008 By: Carole McWilliams
With the clock hitting 11 p.m. on Monday, the La Plata County Commissioners postponed a decision on revised oil and gas land use regulations.
Jordan Cuthair, left,
and Jaelynn Herrera perform Tuesday
at Ignacio Elementary School as part
of Los Colores de ignacio Hispanic
Heritage Week celebration.
They will consider them again during their Oct. 7 morning agenda, but with the real prospect of another postponement.
The commissioners hearing room was full Monday evening with gas industry representatives, San Juan Citizens Alliance representatives, and large landowners concerned about property rights issues and wildlife protections that could push drilling into ranchers’ calving and lambing seasons.
County Commissioner Wally White wanted assurance that landowners will have a say on timing issues.
Commissioner Kellie Hotter agreed.
Colorado Division of Wildlife representative Jon Holst said, “We are committed to working with the county, local operators, and landowners. …We recognize that landowners provide a lot of wildlife habitat. We don’t want to provide a hardship for them. The Standard Operating Procedure would have a landowner consent provision.”
One of the hottest items Monday was expanded notification and appeal rights of siting decisions for adjacent landowners.
Oil and Gas Accountability Project director Gwen Lachalt argued that the neighbor often has more impact from drilling than the surface owner.
Rancher Jim Fitzgerald argued that the adjacent landowner shouldn’t have to show a “reasonable likelihood of actual injury” because code standards aren’t being met to be able to appeal; that there could be reasonable likelihood even if standards are met.
Ranchers J. Paul Brown and Barbara Jefferies argued neighbors or the CDOW have no right to say how someone uses their land.
Brown and Jefferies also objected to a provision that would allow county staff to come on their land for a site visit at the request of a neighbor.
Brown said, “If someone else wants to buy my property, they can decide what happens there. … Right of entry – the companies have a right. The county doesn’t. The Division of Wildlife and neighbors don’t. If they do, they might get shot.”
Wildarado Ranch owner Ron Burkett also objected to county staff being able to come on his land any time. “I don’t know if I’d shoot you, but you might get run over.”
He said he doesn’t want to be notified when a county person will come on his land. He wants the county to coordinate it with him, for when it works for him. He said he often requests the county to come, “But it shouldn’t take away the owner’s control of access.”
The right of entry language has been in the code for 20 years, county attorney Jeff Robbins said.
Burkett said in many cases a drilling window crosses property lines. “It it’s (the well) on my property, then the neighbor shouldn’t have a say.” He also warned that the county regs could conflict with surface owner agreements worked out in advance between operator and surface owner.
Terra Road resident Pat Dillon commented, “To say an adjacent owner should have no rights, that’s ridiculous. The problems don’t stay on the surface owner’s property.”
County Manager Shawn Nau said the “reasonable likelihood” standard was to prevent frivolous appeals by neighbors.
The commissioners agreed this appeal option should apply only to well siting, with “reasonable likelihood” to be decided by the county planning director with appeal to the county ccommissioners.
Setbacks from homes were another hot issue. The draft standards refer to distance from the wellhead instead of from the site perimeter. Setbacks are from existing homes or platted building envelopes, and to the adjoining property line.
Dillon objected that the 150 foot setback from a wellhead to a property line is a significant reduction from the current standard of 200 feet from site perimeter to the property line.
“At least preserve what we have regarding setbacks,” Dillon said. “Otherwise it’s to the advantage of the surface owner to put it s close to the property line as possible.”
County gas technical advisor Mike Matheson said the intent was to be distance neutral with the change in measuring point. The wellhead is a very definite place, while site perimeter is not, County Manager Shawn Nau said.
BP representative Brad McKenna argued setbacks could conflict with the draft code limit (with exceptions) of four well pads per 640 acre section.
Industry representatives also worried that the four well pads per section don’t account for wells to deeper formations, which have different state spacing rules. They wanted the code to specify that the four pad limit applies to Fruitland coal formation wells.
Matheson said, “We didn’t specify coalbed methane wells because we want all operators to look at existing pads or explain why it’s not practical.”
The commissioners wanted more work on that code section.
BP representative Chad Tidwell wanted clarification in the draft definition of major facilities, that the 200 horsepower cumulative threshold does not count electric motors or internal combustion engines used until LPEA can install 3-phase power to a site.
Tidwell also noted another potential conflict with the goal of multiple wells per pad, that wellhead equipment could reach the cumulative threshold for a major facility. A central compressor station using electric compressors would still be a major facility, he said.
Another hot issue was a new requirement for disclosure of drilling chemicals to the county, even if they are trade secrets. In a medical emergency they can be disclosed to health care providers.
Halliburton attorney Thomas Jackson argued that state and federal rules are adequate.
The disclosure provision was added in the county regs and pending state regs after a Mercy Medical Center ER nurse suffered life threatening reactions in April to drilling chemicals on a gas field worker’s boots, and the hospital couldn’t get information on the actual chemical components.
Rebecca Koeppen said the chemical disclosure requirement isn’t strong enough. It should be public disclosure, not just “a few select people” who have the information, she said.
County Road 502 resident Osmin Gonzalez said landowners who want to test their well water for possible contamination don’t know what to test for if they don’t know what drilling chemicals are being used.
Some audience members want the county to warranty that none of the drilling chemicals are toxic, since the chemicals aren’t disclosed to the public.
That’s impossible, Wally White said. “We can’t get that information ourselves. … After six or seven months, we still don’t have information about the chemicals that affected one of our medical workers.”
As for the 500 pound threshhold for disclosure cited by the Halliburton attorney, White said it doesn’t take 500 pounds to make someone deathly ill.
Former county gas technical advisor Warren Holland and East Animas Road resident Nancy VanDover wanted potential water injection well impacts addressed. They cited well water and ground heating up about 10 years ago from an injection well about 10 miles away that apparently was injecting into a saturated formation.
Holland wanted a requirement for operators to determine how much water a formation can receive before an injection well is allowed.
However, the county considers this to be a downhole technical issue that doesn’t belong in a land use document.
Fruitland outcrop issues and water well testing requirements are omitted for the same reason. The outcrop is not uniform, Nau said. Outcrop issues need site-specific consideration.
The commissioners said outcrop issues need serious attention, but not necessarily in the code.
State Sen. Jim Isgar urged the county commissioners to wait on the county rules until the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission finishes its own major rule re-write process. The current target for that is December. The original target was this past July. Then the legislature has to review and approve the new rules, Isgar said.
Citizens Alliance representative Josh Joswick argued against delay. Regulations are written for the bad operators, not the good ones, he said.
For years operator have said tougher regs will force them out, jobs will be lost, and county tax revenue will go down, but none of that has happened, Joswick said. The commissioners are elected to represent residents. “Take as strong a stand as possible,” he said.
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