Delta County wins round one with oil, gas industry
Citizens of Paonia and other towns of Delta County claimed victory Monday in the first round of a battle with the oil and gas industry.
Delta County became the first county in Colorado to challenge the authority of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to exert sole review power on permits for gas wells. The county commissioners voted 2-1 to deny permits for four exploratory coal-bed methane gas wells and apply stringent conditions on a fifth.
The state oil and gas commission had granted one-year drilling permits for the five wells. Delta County is claiming its review powers cannot be pre-empted by the state commission.
“It’ll be evolving, rest assured of that,” said Delta County Commissioner Jim Ventrello. “There will be some court stuff.”
There is no formal indication yet whether Gunnison Energy Corp. will appeal the commissioners’ decision.
Ventrello wanted permits denied for all five wells, so he cast the lone vote against the motion. He said his opposition to the drilling boiled down to one issue.
“It’s simple; it’s the water,” he said. “The exploratory wells are right in the middle of our watershed.”
A coalition called the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance lobbied the commissioners to deny permits for the wells. The coalition’s membership made allies of people and groups often on the opposite ends of issues.
“We have ranchers and hippies and fruit growers,” said Michael McCarthy, a Hotchkiss attorney who represented the group. “This is a real example of what a community can do if they want something bad enough.”
The issue has several ties to Aspen. Local attorney Tom Smith is helping represent the alliance because of his expertise in land use. Former Aspenite Maxwell Alley, a retired attorney, is also helping the organization. Basalt and Hotchkiss resident Robin Waters is a spokeswoman for the alliance.
The relevance to Pitkin County may be even greater, depending on what source you listen to from the oil and gas industry. Gunnison Energy wants to search for gas trapped in areas where there are extensive coal beds at the base of the Grand Mesa.
Similar coal beds exist over McClure Pass in parts of Pitkin County – both west of Redstone in Coal Basin and south of Carbondale in the Thompson Creek area.
The head of the state oil and gas commission, Rich Griebling, said no applications for wells are pending in Pitkin County, and he doubts gas extraction could be done profitably enough to entice production in either Pitkin or Delta counties.
Gunnison Energy believes further exploration is worthwhile. It has suggested that as many as 600 wells could be possible if full production is warranted.
McCarthy said a challenge to the Delta County commissioners’ decision will likely come from the oil and gas company. The state oil and gas commission ruled to grant the permits and likely wanted nothing more to do with the case, he said.
Gunnison Energy could seek a court ruling on whether or not the county commissioners exceeded their powers. If the energy company ignored the county ruling, the alliance would press for an injunction.
“If they march in with drilling rigs, we’d be right there with Delta County,” McCarthy said.
Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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