Revised oil and gas regs approved

Archuleta County residents should have unprecedented protections from the impacts of oil and gas drilling and exploration, based on a commissioner decision Monday to adopt and incorporate revised oil and gas regulations into the county land use code.

Archuleta County Commissioner Bob Moomaw said the revised regulations piggy back on La Plata County’s two-year effort to revise its own regulations, and should provide a balance between addressing and accommodating industry concerns and protecting the health safety and welfare of Archuleta County residents.

“We’re using La Plata County’s regs as a basis. I realize the industry has some concerns, but I think they have been adequately addressed,” Moomaw said.

Moomaw explained because the regulations also call for the formation of an Archuleta County energy council, key industry players and other stakeholders should remain well informed, engaged and participating in the county’s long-term and ongoing regulatory efforts.

“The energy council will provide a way to touch base with operators and drillers on a regular basis,” said Rick Bellis, the county’s director of community development.

According to Bellis, the energy council should be assembled by Jan. 20.

By providing technical and other information, Bellis said industry representatives played a vital role in helping draft the revised regulations.

“I think the industry was very helpful, particularly in the definitions section. I think we have a good working relationship,” Bellis said.

Chief among the differences between the former regulations and those adopted Monday is the county’s ability to permit and review applications for drilling activity on federal lands.

Bellis said prior regulations allowed for scant county oversight over energy operations but recent legal interpretations now allow counties to flex more regulatory muscle.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s on federal land or private land, the environmental impacts are the same,” Bellis said.

In an effort to mitigate those impacts, Bellis said the new regulations include county-level insurance and bonding requirements regarding surface impacts, and background checks for major and minor operations.

Bellis said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioner currently requires a $5,000 bond.

“We’ll do background checks. Are there violations? Have they drilled in other counties?” Bellis said, adding that county staff will check for violations in New Mexico as well.

In addition, new drillers or operators are now required to meet face-to-face with the county’s planning commission as part of the application process.

“Ninety-nine percent of people that come in here we never have a problem with. They do a really good job.”

However, the remaining 1 percent has Bellis concerned, particularly in light of recent environmental and safety incidents, and he said similar requirements in other counties have “actually cut down on the number of fly-by-night operators”

Bellis estimated there are 450 wells currently in Archuleta County with just 52 of those permitted by the county on private land. With the lion’s share of oil and gas activity in Archuleta County on federal land, Bellis said the county’s revised regulations, with their ability to conduct permitting and review over operations on federal land, is a vast improvement.

“There’s long been an argument that if it’s on federal property there’s no public interest. But the environmental impacts don’t stop at the boundary of the quarter-acre (well) site,” Bellis said.

The regulations took effect Dec. 22 and will be reexamined with the planning commission, the board of county commissioners and the energy council in a public hearing Jan. 22.

james@pagosasun.com