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County’s drilling review limited

Pitkin County government is accustomed to flexing its muscles on land-use issues but it’s uncertain if there is much to flex when it comes to regulating the natural gas industry.County officials are assessing this week how much regulatory power they have over gas well drilling in the extreme western part of the county – where exploration is looming.”It’s not to the extent that I think Pitkin County would like to see,” said Cindy Houben, director of the county’s community development department. “It’s pretty limited.”What’s clear, she said, is the county cannot review whether or not a gas well can be drilled on federal lands within Pitkin County. The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service hold those powers.The county has some review powers on “off-site impacts” such as air quality, water quality, noise and effects on roads – but how much is open to debate. The state government, through the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, exercises most of the review power and claims it as its exclusive domain.Citizens in Delta County learned that in 2002 when they tried to force the commission to give their county commissioners more review power. The Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance pressed cases in court to gain more regulatory power for Delta County. The citizens’ arguments were rejected by the courts.”We definitely lost that battle,” said Tom Leach of Hotchkiss, a former oil industry executive who was a leader of the citizens’ efforts. However, the effort did force the gas company to comply with higher standards because it knew it was under scrutiny and it wanted to practice good community relations, according to Leach.Tom Smith, an Aspen attorney who represented the citizens’ group, said courts have consistently ruled that state law pre-empts local laws. In addition, the state Legislature has repeatedly passed laws that reinforce regulatory powers for the state.For example, Garfield County was regulating noise from drilling rigs. The industry lobbied the Legislature, and a law was passed to place noise regulation exclusively with the state, according to Smith.”No other industry in the state gets carte blanche like these guys do,” he said.”Local governments all around the Western Slope would like to regulate the oil and gas industry. They have been constantly frustrated by the state,” he added.Smith stressed that his opinions were based on experiences he witnessed in Delta and Garfield counties. He hasn’t studied Pitkin County’s situation. Pitkin County hasn’t experienced drilling within its borders since the 1950s and ’60s, when the Wolf Creek Gas Field was developed southwest of Ski Sunlight. Eight wells in the field produced from 1960 to 1972. The field is only used now for storage of natural gas piped in from other fields.EnCana Oil and Gas USA has applied to drill a new exploratory well. A company official explained that the firm will seek gas in a different formation than what was tapped before. No work is expected until 2005.Pitkin County wants EnCana to submit an application to it for off-site impacts. Walter Lowry, director of community and industry relations for EnCana, said the firm will cooperate. The Forest Service is reviewing the application to drill.EnCana has supplied information to the Forest Service that indicated if exploration is successful, it would pursue “full-field development” that could result in up to 60 wells in the Wolf Creek area. Pitkin County suffered a defeat Monday in an effort to prevent additional land from being targeted for exploration. It appealed the federal government’s lease of 1,560 acres of public land for gas exploration in May. The BLM and Forest Service dismissed the appeal, saying the land leased was located in an area deemed appropriate for that activity.That leaves the county with few options other than to try to control effects of the drilling on adjacent lands.The county commissioners “are very concerned about getting state-of-the-art regulations in place,” said Houben. The county code has regulations now, she said, but they need to be updated.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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