Warnings from state agencies and energy developer Ultra Resources that El Paso County officials do not have authority to regulate certain land-use issues pertaining to oil and gas drilling didn’t dissuade county commissioners from marching ahead Thursday with draft regulations.
At the fourth public work session on the issue, commissioners agreed to move toward adopting a final document. Next, the county’s planning commission will review the proposed regulations in a special meeting next Wednesday, Jan. 4, at 9 a.m. at Pikes Peak Regional Development Center, 2880 International Circle.
The planning commission will make a recommendation to county commissioners, who will vote on the final regulations Jan. 31. A four-month temporary suspension on drilling permits expires the end of January.
The county received 85 comments from other government agencies, industry officials and the general public during a month-long public comment period that ended Nov. 28. Comments touched on a host of topics, including water supply and potential contamination, impacts to local roads, hydraulic fracturing, visual impacts, hours of operation, environmental concerns and the timing of the regulations.To see the draft regulations, go to: http://adm.elpasoco.com/Development%20Services/Documents/Land%20Development%20Code/Oil%20and%20Gas.pdf.
Some of those who submitted written comments to the county also addressed commissioners at Thursday’s work session.
Ken Wonstolen, a Denver lawyer who represents the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, as well as Ultra Resources, an energy developer that wants to drill in El Paso County, said both of his clients are “concerned about the vulcanization of problematic aspects we find with the proposed ordinance.”
He specifically cited what he called the time consuming nature of the local permitting process, which in the draft regulations require hearings before both the county planning commission and approval by the county commissioners.
“There really is a fundamental disconnect between land-use planning and oil and gas development," Wonstolen said. "If you can’t say no and you can’t say where and you don’t have a lot to say about how it’s down what is it you’re trying to say with your regulations? You’re trying to squash a round peg into a square hole.”
Brad Johnson, a vice president with Ultra Resources, which already has obtained state approval to drill three tests wells in rural El Paso County and is in the final stages of getting local permitting, said the company has serious concerns about the draft regulations because they contain “numerous operational conflicts.”
“The regulations in draft form are inefficient, burdensome and arbitrary,” he said. “In many instances, the requirements are vague and will lead to ad hoc, not legislative, rule making. Important issues such as wildlife, groundwater protection, location setbacks, waste management, noise and air quality are all effectively regulated by state agencies.”
Comments ran the spectrum, from “an egregious example of burdensome local development” (Colorado Oil and Gas Association) to “I see this as trying to protect the protect the health and welfare of the public” (local business owner John Crandall). Many said they thought the proposed regulations weren’t stringent enough.
Resident Mary Talbott wondered where the money will come from for the county’s health department to do air and water quality testing.
“There’s no air quality program now — it needs to be dedicated funding from the board of county commissioners to make sure it’s done right," Talbott said. "Oil and gas companies will do anything and everything that is not illegal. Corporate goodwill and unofficial promises are wholly irrelevant; the only restraint is the rules they follow.”
David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which permits and monitors the industry at the state level, said he’s concerned about local governments adopting their own regulations because that creates confusion over requirements, consumes staff time, imposes costs and delays and interferes with his organization’s mandate to oversee the industry.
“At the end of the day everybody has the same objective: to assure the companies are using the best practices and doing the right things to protect public health and safety and the environment,” he said, adding that the state has several programs to work with local governments to address monitoring, wildlife concerns and other aspects of drilling.
Commissioner Sallie Clark said she still believes “local government is the best government.”
“I prefer to be as proactive as possible, and I’ve had a little frustration dealing with the state of Colorado and lots of frustration dealing with the federal government,” she said.
Several commissioners asked to see information on options Neslin mentioned, including a memorandum of understanding Gunnison County struck with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regarding well monitoring.