Industry weighs in on oil and gas regs

A standing-room-only crowd packed the commissioners’ chambers Tuesday to weigh in on revised oil and gas regulations before the commissioners cast their votes and incorporated the new rules into the county’s land use code.

Although public comment was taken during Tuesday’s hearing, the board — absent Robin Schiro — ultimately agreed to continue the public hearing until Dec. 22 to allow all stakeholders to become better versed in the proposed regulations.

Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata Energy Council, spoke for many industry representatives when she said she was frustrated with county staff’s ability to produce documents, such as copies of the proposed regulations, and other information in a timely manner.

“Back up just a little bit, enforce what you currently have and table the regulations until the COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) regulations are finished,” Zeller said.

A representative from Energen resources also complained of the communication breakdown and urged the board not to “rewrite the rules, but provide stronger enforcement” on the existing regulations.

But it’s not just Zeller and her industry colleagues who have felt left out of the information loop.

As a case in point, Archuleta County planning commissioners, industry representatives, the press and the public did not receive copies of the revised regulations with 16 key changes, until just before a hearing on the topic scheduled Dec. 3. According to those in attendance, the late arrival of the draft regulations made it difficult for all players to engage in a meaningful dialogue and for county staff to take substantive comments.

Rick Bellis, the county’s planning director, acknowledged industry representatives’ concerns, and as part of his recommendation to the board Tuesday, encouraged the commissioners to continue the hearing to allow additional time for stakeholder review and to collect comments.

“It’s fair to the industry and fair to the public to wait until Dec. 22, but there still is a sense of urgency,” said Rick Bellis, the county’s planning director.

According to Bellis, there are a number of factors driving that “sense of urgency.”

First, the clock is ticking on a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) deferral to open mineral leases on certain properties in the Chromo area with split estate ownership. According to the BLM, those mineral leases should have been put out for bid in November, but the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners requested a 90-day deferral in order to allow property owners time to educate themselves about their rights, responsibilities, opportunities and the leasing process. The BLM will offer the Chromo area leases at their February 2009 lease sale.

The expiration of the deferral, coupled with a number of recent violations, including an unlined drill pit adjacent to, and draining into the Navajo River, Bellis said, had caused serious concerns for downstream users and prompted the push for more stringent regulations.

“Because of the sudden surge of interest in gas in Archuleta County,” Bellis said, “wells under old permits are being re-opened,” Bellis said.

Re-opening old wells, Bellis argued, can result in cracked well casings leading to methane seeps and possible methane leaks into water supplies — a situation the revised regulations may be able to limit or prevent through well testing and monitoring.

In addition to violations, Bellis said he has seen evidence the industry is poised to ramp up exploration and extraction efforts in Archuleta County and the proposed regulations are an effort to balance industry interests, profitability, and the county’s charge to protect its citizens’ health safety and welfare.

Chief among those citizen concerns are air, noise and water quality issues.

Arboles resident Penny Holmes described the transformation of her community from a “really nice farming and ranching community to an industrial zone,” with noise, dust and heavy truck traffic. She added that she isn’t satisfied with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s oversight in the Arboles area and said, “The stronger the regulations the better.”

Dan Ribera, who lives near Caracas, talked of dust, noise and road degradation experienced due to heavy oil and gas truck traffic on area roads. “Being a private landowner in the middle of all this, we’re concerned about the ecosystem,” Ribera said. “It’s pretty pathetic if you go out there at seven in the morning, it’s ridiculous.”

While landowners in the audience called for tighter regulations and stronger enforcement, industry representatives cautioned against redundancy between the county’s proposed regulations, federal regulations, and new rules soon due out from the COGCC. In addition, they cautioned the commissioners against adopting rules that may be overly burdensome to the industry or that may cause the county to overstep its regulatory bounds.

Responding, in part, to industry representatives’ comment, Josh Joswick, oil and gas coordinator for the environmental advocacy group the San Juan Citizens Alliance said, “It’s a multibillion dollar industry that’s threatening you with lawsuits and bullying you to get what they want,” Joswick said. “As much as possible, you need to have local control on those issues that don’t impede production.”

The southwestern corner of Archuleta County sits on the northern edge of the San Juan Basin field — a 106,000-acre patchwork of public, private and tribal lands that straddles the Colorado and New Mexico state lines and contains one of the nation’s richest deposits of natural gas. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the basin’s coal bed methane production exceeds that of any basin worldwide.

The proposed oil and gas regulations are available on the Web, at www.archuletacounty.org.

james@pagosasun.com