Drill site inspection option rare in Garco | AspenTimes.com

Drill site inspection option rare in Garco

Dennis Webb
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GARFIELD COUNTY ” A relatively new state policy aimed at resolving conflicts related to natural gas drilling sites has been little-used in Garfield County.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conserva­tion Commission’s on-site inspection policy was instituted in February 2005, largely to address concerns in places such as Garfield County about conflicts between landowners and energy compa­nies wanting to drill on their land. Yet requests for inspections in the county have been made only four times.

Statewide, the COGCC has received 91 requests. Forty-eight were for loca­tions in Weld County, and another 16 for Las Animas County sites.

COGCC director Brian Macke thinks the low number of requests in Garfield County reflects efforts by energy compa­nies to reach surface use agreements with landowners in the county.

“They see that it’s in their best inter­ests to do so,” he said.

The inspection policy resulted from situations involving split estates, in which landowners don’t own underlying minerals. Under state law, energy com­panies can post a bond and proceed with drilling if they’re unable to reach a sur­face-use agreement with a landowner.

Under the policy, a landowner who isn’t happy with an energy developer’s plans for a drilling site can request an on-site inspection by COGCC staff. The COGCC then can ask for more mitiga­tion of visual, noise and other impacts, if warranted.

The COGCC has conducted 20 on-site inspections out of the 91 requests. Forty-­seven requests were withdrawn and 24 inspections are pending.

Macke said that the last he checked for Garfield County this year, 505 of 1,670 drilling permit applications involved cases of split estates. Energy companies reached surface-use agree­ments with landowners in 479 of those cases.

“I really do believe that it reflects their desire to go that extra step and make sure that they arrive at a mutually agreeable surface-use agreement,” Macke said.

Duke Cox, chairman of the energy committee of the Western Colorado Con­gress, said the low number of requests for inspections in the county could reflect any number of things. He said there was a long history of the COGCC ignoring Garfield County residents’ con­cerns, and they came to rely on other sources of help. One option has been to contact the local Grand Valley Citizens Alliance group, which then would con­tact the COGCC.

Garfield residents also have become more familiar with drilling issues through forums and educational materi­als, he said.

“Them calling the COGCC to come out and settle their differences, we’re maybe past that point,” Cox said.

Only about 12 percent of drilling applications approved in Colorado last year were permitted under a surface-use bond. Macke said that’s down from as high as 21 percent in past years, before the new policy was in place. But the per­centage has risen again this year, to about 17 percent.

Macke said one reason is that some companies prefer to proceed with drilling under a bond and reach a surface-use agreement later, once the impacts associ­ated with a well pad are better known. The COGCC doesn’t receive information on how many agreements are reached after a drilling permit is issued.

Macke believes the inspection policy has proven to be workable, and has helped push companies to reach agree­ments with landowners.

“We’ve seen that it’s provided a very important mechanism for having the oil and gas commission staff available to surface owners who feel like they may not be consulted with as they would like to be,” Macke said.

The inspection program was imple­mented on a trial basis as only a policy, meaning it’s not formally enforceable. But compliance by companies has been high, Macke said, and he would like to see the policy become an enforceable rule.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature this year passed, and Gov. Bill Ritter signed, a law requiring energy developers to minimize their damage to surface land, and let surface owners seek compensa­tory damages when that hasn’t occurred.