Governing the gas field
County pushed to ‘fix’ oil and gas code

SideStory: State Parks may OK drilling


A well pad sits in close proximity to homes on La Posta Road, south fo Durango. An unintended consequence of the county’s 2008 oil and gas code has been drilling closer to homes. The County Planning Commission is recommending remedying this and other problems resulting from the code./Photo by Steve Eginoire

by Will Sands

ontroversy is again bubbling to the surface around La Plata County’s Oil and Gas Code. The push is on for revisions to protect homeowners from the impacts of drilling, and La Plata County commissioners will consider whether or not to undertake an update at a hearing next week.

La Plata County inked the latest iteration of its oil and gas code in 2008, and the stringent rules governing the county’s 3,000 gas wells went on the books in spite of industry objections. La Plata County staffers believe the code set a new high bar for meshing community health, wildlife habitat and responsible minerals development.

“La Plata County’s code is the most progressive in the state and the entire country,” explained County Planning Engineer Victoria Schmitt. “Most significantly, La Plata County restricts new development to areas that are already disturbed.”

Per the code, operators are required to utilize existing well pads, roads and pipelines when available. The provision has kept new oil and gas development to acreage that has already gone beneath the drill bit and the grader blade. As a result, operators are embracing advanced technology and drilling horizontally to access coalbed methane reserves. Confining those impacts has been a boon for area wildlife, private property and residents, Schmitt noted.

“A well pad is roughly an acre in size, and each well pad is linked by roads and pipelines,” she said. “We’ve limited new development to existing well pads and our operators focus on directional drilling. That has made for far fewer impacts.”

However, prioritizing the use of disturbed areas has also triggered an unintended consequence. Prior to adopting the rules in 2008, staffers dropped a provision known as the 10-acre rule. The rule prohibited drilling in subdivisions with lots smaller than 10 acres. At the time, staffers considered it redundant – a 450-foot setback rule effectively keeps drilling out of lots smaller than 14 acres.

But as subdivisions have grown up around abandoned wells, oil and gas operators have found themselves in a quandary. On occasion, the regulations have steered them toward existing wellpads in small-lot subdivisions in order to heed the county’s highest priority – keeping drilling to already-disturbed areas.

“La Plata County has created a situation where operators are essentially forced to go onto pads on lots of 10 acres or less,” said Josh Joswick, oil and gas coordinator for San Juan Citizens Alliance. “That was once a huge protection that homeowners counted on. Now, a lot of people in several areas of the county are in a position of exposure. The county needs to go back and make it right.”

The La Plata County Planning Commission agrees with Joswick’s assessment. Last month, the appointed body forwarded a recommendation that the 10-acre rule be reinstated. The move was adopted by a vote of 4-1. In addition, the commission heeded two other concerns raised by residents.

Currently, the Oil and Gas Code ranks its environmental and community standards in order of importance. Such standards include: the use of disturbed areas, 450-foot setbacks and reducing impacts to residential areas among other things. Currently, the use of existing well pads has the highest priority and takes precedence, which has led to problems according to Joswick.

“Because the standards are ranked, the top one prevails regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “The county needs to reconsider the hierarchy.”

Lastly, the Oil and Gas Code makes appeals difficult for residents. “The third leg in the stool is restoring the ability to appeal decisions,” Joswick said. “The county has effectively eliminated appeals.”

As a result, the Planning Commission is recommending that the county restore the 10-acre rule; eliminate the ranking system; and relax the appeals process. “If they can fix those three things, they’ll have a workable code,” Joswick said. “It’s time that the county acknowledge these mistakes and stop trying to take the long way around the barn to find the solutions.”

In the end, the will of the people should rule the day, Schmitt concluded. The Planning Commission recommendations go before the Board of County Commissioners on Dec. 7. Commissioners will consider the comments, hear from members of the public and determine whether additional changes are in La Plata County’s best interest. •

Additional information on La Plata County’s Oil and Gas Code, including the proposed oil and gas revisions, is available online at: http://co.laplata.co.us.

 

 

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