County looks at shale-oil timeout

Moratorium would allow study of heavy water fracking

Faced with the possibility that La Plata County could see shale-oil-well development for the first time in the coming year, county commissioners explored the possibility of enacting a moratorium on the practice during a work session Wednesday.

Commissioners brought up the possibility of a moratorium on shale-oil-well development after Houston-based Swift Energy Resources filed two applications with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to drill two exploratory horizontal wells in western La Plata County.

Swift’s target is the oil- and gas-rich Niobrara Formation, known in La Plata County as the Mancos Shale Formation.

Aided by technologies such as horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing, energy companies have unlocked millions of barrels of oil from the Niobrara Formation on the Front Range, and now drillers are looking to tap it in other locations.

A moratorium on shale-oil-well development would allow the county to investigate the potential impacts of this type of development, which has never happened before in the county.

The majority of the more than 3,000 wells that dot the county are coal-bed methane wells.

Shale-oil wells extend much farther laterally and are fracked multiple times, requiring much more water than coal-bed methane wells.

Coal-bed methane wells completed in 2011, for example, required between 200,000 and 250,000 gallons of water, while the drilling and completion process for horizontal shale-oil wells require more than 4 million gallons.

Shale-oil-well pad sites are about three times larger than those of coal-bed methane wells to accommodate the massive amounts of water, sand and other materials needed to frack the wells.

All of this could have significant implications for the county from a land-use perspective, Deputy County Attorney Todd Weaver wrote in a memorandum to the county commissioners Wednesday.

In an area such as the western part of the county where water is scarce, operators likely will be hauling thousands of gallons of water a day in the shale-drilling process, which would have major impacts to county roads, Weaver said.

It was estimated that shale-oil wells drilled in the Bakken Shale Play in North Dakota require 2,000 to 2,200 truckloads to bring in and haul out the necessary material during their first year.

The county’s code currently doesn’t allow the government to assess or recover fees to maintain roads based on impacts from oil and natural-gas development, Weaver said. The western part of the county also lacks pipeline infrastructure that could cut down truck traffic, Weaver said.

La Plata County would hardly be the first to enact a moratorium related to gas and oil development. Cities across the Front Range enacted moratoriums during the last several years to give themselves time to study the gas and oil drilling and reform their land-use codes to better address such development.

Boulder and El Paso counties also enacted moratoriums to allow for revisions to their land-use codes and the adoption of new oil and gas regulations.

During the Wednesday work session, commissioners asked questions related to the county’s jurisdiction over natural-gas and oil development but gave no indication about whether they would continue to explore or move forward with a moratorium.

ecowan@durangoherald.com