Pitkin County ready to look again at oil, gas regs?

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Pitkin County may again take up new oil and gas regulations that were shelved after winning initial approval more than a year ago from county commissioners.

A renewed stab at beefing up the regulations comes against the backdrop of potential drilling in Thompson Divide – an area west of Carbondale that is partially within Pitkin County, and a lawsuit challenging Gunnison County’s oil and gas regulations, filed by the same company that has interests in the Divide area.

“They just kind of got stalled out,” Cindy Houben, head of the county’s Community Development Department, said of Pitkin County’s proposed regulations. “It’s hard to make a move in the direction we want to make a move in without having controversy. At some point, we just need to move forward.”

Commissioner George Newman said he’d like the regulations to come back for further consideration before any drilling occurs in Thompson Divide, if it does. Commissioners also have sent a letter to Colorado congressional representatives urging them to introduce legislation that would permanently withdraw the Divide area from availability for future leasing.

“That needs to be designated as wilderness,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

Houston-based SG Interests, Ltd. filed an application with the Bureau of Land Management to “unitize” its 16 leases, plus two others – a move that opponents believe would allow it to drill one test well for the entire unit and hold onto the leases for the foreseeable future.

In addition, SG Interests is suing Gunnison County over its regulations and weighed in when Pitkin County last looked at more comprehensive oil and gas regulations.

A letter to the county from Denver attorney Ken Wonstolen, representing SG Interests, read: “Pitkin County’s proposed ordinance is perhaps the most far-reaching, if not to say over-reaching, example of local oil and gas regulations that I have seen.”

Wonstolen took issue with various provisions in the county’s proposed regulations, contending that they either improperly duplicated or exceeded state rules, and concluded the county appeared to be attempting to make oil and gas operations so difficult as to discourage the industry from even trying.

The county already has gas and oil regulations in its code, and it has gas lease activity in its northwest corner, including active wells used for storage and monitoring, as well as abandoned wells. Most of them are in what’s called the Wolf Creek Field, near the county’s borders with Garfield and Mesa counties.

According to the latest figures from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are 10 active wells in Pitkin County. Only five counties have less activity. Of the 2,305 drill permits approved this year (as of July 7) in Colorado, none were in Pitkin County, according to the commission. None were issued in the county last year, either.

While most of the county does not contain the bountiful natural gas reserves that have made places like Garfield and Rio Blanco counties hotbeds of drilling, Pitkin County commissioners have lately taken positions opposing the leasing of public lands for drilling to the extent possible, both in and outside of the county. They’ve also pointed to the large number of already existing leases where no activity has yet occurred in calling for halting the further leasing of public lands for oil and gas development.

“I personally believe we ought to be tough as nails and challenging the industry when reasonable and necessary,” Hatfield said.

Tapping natural gas isn’t a national security issue, as it’s foreign oil from which the country needs to wean itself, Hatfield contends. And, like his colleagues, he worries that the potential environmental consequences of natural gas extraction aren’t compatible with the county’s tourism-dependent economy.

Protection of natural resources is the county’s priority, agreed Commissioner George Newman. “I wouldn’t say that’s NIMBYism, I would say that’s just what our values are as a community,” he said.

Commissioner Michael Owsley said he would embrace a discussion with the oil and gas industry about whether it can extract resources without harming air and water quality, and habitat.

“Until that discussion can occur, I think Pitkin County’s view is, don’t do it here,” he said.

Protecting those natural resources was the purported aim of the new oil and gas regs. The goal was to “ensure that exploration and production of oil and gas resources occurs in a manner that conserves other natural resources, that is compatible with existing and proposed land uses, and that prevents, or adequately mitigates for adverse impacts to public health, safety, welfare and the environment,” according to a draft of the updated code provisions reviewed last year.

The amended code addressed the visual and noise impacts associated with oil and gas operations, air quality, wildlife impact avoidance and requirements for surface and subsurface water protection and water monitoring, among other concerns.

The proposed code also augmented the financial assurances required by the state oil and gas commission to cover potential accidents, unforeseen events and potential long-term damage to the health of citizens, the environment, water and wildlife.

Houben anticipates opposition when the county looks anew at the proposed regulations, though it received a slew of letters from citizens in support of the action when commissioners last looked at the ordinance early last year.

“There’s no doubt about it – any move anybody makes on oil and gas well regs from a local perspective will be challenged,” she said.

There is no set timeline for bringing the regulations back before commissioners.