Pitkin County keeps an eye on drilling developments

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County is supporting efforts by the state to beef up regulations related to oil and gas drilling but has put on hold an attempt to enhance its own local rules on resource extraction for now.

With the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and jurisdictions around the state wrestling with how best to regulate the industry and protect residents from potential impacts, Pitkin County has been taking a wait-and-see approach despite the uptick in drilling interest within its borders, according to Cindy Houben, director of the county’s Community Development Department.

“It’s always a moving target with all the rule-making and the changes that take place at the state level,” she said.

The county has, however, been keeping an eye on drilling developments locally, and county commissioners are scheduled to have an oil and gas discussion Tuesday behind closed doors. Chris Seldin, assistant county attorney, declined to discuss the nature of the meeting.

It has been close to three years since Pitkin County took up proposed new oil and gas regulations; they were shelved after winning initial approval from county commissioners. Subsequent revisions have never advanced to public review, though attempts to craft regulations that don’t conflict with state and federal rules have continued, Houben said.

“We have a ton (of versions) that we’ve worked on,” she said.

In the meantime, the regulations already on the books in Pitkin County will be used if an application for a special-use permit to drill comes to the county.

“Our regulations are pretty basic, but they’re not bad,” Houben said.

A permit application to the county could be forthcoming – eventually.

Texas-based SG Interests has filed either notices of staking or applications to drill with the Bureau of Land Management for six wells in five locations (one proposed pad would access two wells) in the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale, including four sites within Pitkin County and one in Garfield County. No application to drill in Thompson Creek has been deemed complete yet, according to BLM spokesman David Boyd. A notice of staking can precede an application to drill but is not required; it triggers a site visit to review the proposed well location.

If an application to drill is processed, the U.S. Forest Service will conduct an environmental review of the surface impacts, as all of the proposed well sites are on federal land, while the BLM is charged with reviewing the specifics of what occurs below ground.

The Forest Service has indicated that its review could take as long as two years, Boyd noted.

Pitkin County is keeping close tabs on permit applications to the BLM related to drilling within its borders but is unsure when a permit application to the local government might be filed, Houben said.

County staffers also are studying the regulations other jurisdictions are drafting, and they are watching what transpires as a result. Proposed rules in Gunnison County have been challenged in court by SG Interests; the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission filed suit last summer against the city of Longmont over its newly adopted oil and gas rules, contending they regulate areas that are meant to be governed by the state; and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently questioned tough, new regulations drafted by Boulder County and reiterated his desire for regulating oil and gas operations at the state level rather than through a “mish-mash” of local regulations, The Denver Post reported last week.

The state commission is currently reviewing changes to its rules related to the setback between drilling operations and residences as well as its water sampling and monitoring requirements.

The county, in a letter sent to the commission in early November, supported the proposed increase in the setback from 350 to 1,000 feet but also urged the state to allow local governments to modify the setback to a minimum of 350 feet, or perhaps less, based on site-specific circumstances.

“As implications for drilling may vary as widely as potential locations and circumstances, one statewide standard may not be the most effective approach,” the county’s letter said. “Local government is best-suited to address issues relating to local land use patterns.”

The county also suggested amendments to the proposed requirements for groundwater sampling before, during and after drilling at a location. The county’s letter urged an accelerated schedule of groundwater monitoring after installation of a well, making sampling data available to the general public and designating the state, in conjunction with the local jurisdiction, as the entity to select sampling locations rather than the drilling operator. Two sampling sites should be the minimum rather than the standard, the county also argued, among other recommendations.