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Yakking and fracking 

With dozens of comments received, the county zeroes in on drilling regulations

From those eager for large-scale oil and gas exploration to get underway, to those who oppose any energy development, residents, government agencies and industry types have sounded off to El Paso County officials.

Their remarks, among a total of 85 submitted during a month-long comment period that ended Nov. 28, are helping shape the county’s forthcoming regulations for exploratory drilling and potential production.

County staff and commissioners will host another public work session and present an update on the draft regulations at 2 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 29, at Pikes Peak Regional Development Center, 2880 International Circle.

The county started researching the issue a year ago, after companies began leasing vast amounts of mineral rights in eastern El Paso County, in preparation for drilling. Reactions, at this point, fall to one extreme or the other, says Commissioner Dennis Hisey.

“When we first started this process, I heard things about, ‘How intrusive is it going to be?’ ‘What’s it going to look like?’ ‘What will happen to the roads?’ Now, it’s either, ‘Protect our water,’ or, ‘This will be good for our county — when are they going to start drilling?’ Nothing in between,” he says.

“I think people figured out the part [of the rig] you see is not the most important part.”

But local jurisdictions, like counties, have little, if any, ability to regulate the underground activity people don’t see. That’s the state’s job.

Nor can counties and cities stop companies from drilling, once they’ve obtained proper government permitting. Finally, they can’t ban the controversial hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, method that involves pumping thousands of gallons of chemically laced water underground to release trapped fossil fuels.

Primary concern

Potential water contamination from oil and gas development — a big fear for many — is “likely to come from surface activities associated with site development,” such as fuel spills and chemical storage, Sean Chambers, general manager of the Cherokee Metropolitan District, pointed out in his written comments to county officials.

Cherokee owns alluvial and Denver Basin water, which supplies properties in parts of northern and eastern El Paso County, and has been involved with a groundwater quality study of the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin.

“We support private property rights, an economically healthy and growing county and the driller’s rights to access their leased resources, but we seek to ensure that all of that does not occur at the expense of county citizens and their public health, safety and welfare,” Chambers wrote.

To protect drinking water, the draft regulations include conditions such as prohibiting earthen pits for storing water that comes back out of the well after drilling, says Craig Dossey, a county planner and project manager.

“We favor the closed-loop system, re-piping the fluid and putting it in tanks,” he adds.

Of the 85 comments, 20 came from other government agencies, three from industry representatives, and 62 from the general public, according to Dossey. The number of comments “far exceeds” those the county received during a similar process to create land use regulations for the renewable energy industry, he says.

“Some people are in favor of certain aspects but not in favor of others. Some feel we were off the mark or didn’t go far enough,” he says. “But the court system has been pretty consistent in determining local government can’t regulate the drilling and pumping process.”

Hisey says proposed regulations are designed to “stand up in court,” if challenged. They’re also intended to back up state requirements but not supersede them. For instance, the state engineer’s office determines who has the legal right to use water. The county’s draft regulations call for proof of the state’s decision, such as a letter from a local water district.

Specific changes

Some recommendations have led to changes in the draft regulations. For example, Dossey says, points made by other jurisdictions, as well as the state’s health department, have resulted in revisions to what chemicals should be tested during groundwater monitoring.

“Those parameters are an important issue, and we want to make sure they’re testing for those indicative of oil and gas production,” he says.

Also as part of groundwater monitoring, the county wants to test area water wells on an ongoing basis, with the permission of property owners. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission tests in the first, third and sixth years that the oil and gas well is drilled, and if it receives complaints. The county proposes testing for the first six years and every five years thereafter, to 10 years after the life of the well.

Input from Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials led to “fairly detailed” changes in the draft regulations, regarding what should trigger required consultation with the agency. At the work session, county planning staff will ask commissioners for more suggestions. Hisey says he plans to float some questions, too.

“I’ll be asking why we’re proposing doing some of the things, such as asking them to take pictures and do photo simulations. We already know what it looks like out there — it’s big and flat,” Hisey says. “Another option I’d like to look at is something Gunnison County does — having a memorandum of understanding with the state that they’d train our inspectors and we could inspect on their behalf.”

The county’s Planning Commission is scheduled to have a special public hearing on the draft regulations at 9 a.m., Wednesday, Jan. 4, at Pikes Peak Regional Development Center.

The five county commissioners — who have the final say over regulations — will convene another hearing at 9 a.m., Jan. 19, also at the Regional Development Center.

The commissioners are tentatively scheduled to vote Jan. 31 on the regulations, which would keep them on schedule to lift a moratorium on exploratory drilling by late January.

Ultra Petroleum, which had received an exception to the temporary suspension, is within a few weeks of gaining county approval to drill on three test wells that the state already has approved in rural areas.

The public comments can be seen on the county’s website, elpasoco.com, under the Dec. 29 work session agenda.

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