Williams gets OK to keep drilling on Battlement Mesa
December 15, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The Williams gas drilling company can finish up its work at two Battlement Mesa well pads without further ado, thanks to a decision Monday by the Garfield County commissioners.
The Board of County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve a pair of special use permits for the well pads, which are located within the sprawling Battlement Mesa Planned Unit Development near Parachute.
None of the three commissioners were upbeat about the decision, although for different reasons.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to be, in this room, completely happy,” intoned Commissioner Mike Samson at the end of the public hearing, which lasted some two and a half hours and drew some highly critical comments from Battlement Mesa residents.
Samson voiced his observation after proposing that Williams haul away massive amounts of “cuttings,” or dirt and rock that comes out of the well-bore during the drilling process, from the only well pad that is still seeing active drilling. The other well pad now is strictly a production operation, pumping gas up from the depths.
Williams officials argued that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency with jurisdiction over drilling, allows well operators to leave cuttings in place if they do not contain toxic materials.
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And, reported Williams drilling supervisor Scott Brady, hauling off roughly half of the cuttings had already cost the company between $150,000 and $175,000. That much of the cuttings had to be hauled off because a storage pit for the material is too small to hold it all and cannot be enlarged.
Samson, however, was more sympathetic with several Battlement Mesa residents who voiced concerns over the potential contamination of the Colorado River, which is just below the well pad and from which the community gets its water.
The money, said Samson, is “a small price for Williams to pay” in return for permission to keep pumping gas from beneath Battlement Mesa after nearly 20 years of doing it without the proper permits.
Although gas extraction is a “use by right” throughout most of Garfield County, meaning there is no need for county permits to drill, it is not so in Battlement Mesa. That is because back in the late 1970s oil shale boom, when Exxon got permission to build Battlement Mesa to house its oil shale workers, the controlling PUD required special use permits for petroleum extraction inside the PUD boundaries.
But Williams did nothing about those permits when it bought the two well pads from its predecessor, Barrett Resources Corp., and started drilling a couple of years ago.
It was not until this year, when another company, Antero Resources, announced plans to also drill inside the PUD, that the special use permit requirements were rediscovered.
Williams and the county have agreed that the oversight about the permits was an honest mistake, and Williams told the commissioners on Monday that it would be finished drilling by February of next year.
At the hearing, Commissioner John Martin said he was “not happy” about Samson’s decisions about the cuttings, prompting Samson’s reply about no one being happy about the entire matter.
And Commissioner Tresi Houpt lamented that “there shouldn’t be a situation in our county where people don’t know there are regulations to be followed.”
But despite her misgivings, she said of the Williams pads, “This is a situation where the activity is almost completed,” so she could see no “productive reason” for denying Williams’ application.
But, she added, “I think this commission needs to talk about penalties … of anyone not adhering to our regulations.”
And she and Samson agreed on the propriety of forcing Williams to remove half the cuttings before it finishes its drilling activities.
Plus, Samson concluded, the hows and whys of the entire issue need to be explored.
“How did it get done, and what are we gonna do to make sure it doesn’t get done again?” he asked about Williams being able to operate inside the PUD for nearly 20 years without permission.