County rejects drilling delay

Westendorff, Lieb: Action not warranted

A moratorium on shale drilling won’t be in La Plata County’s future, at least in the near term. A divided board of county commissioners decided against moving forward with a moratorium on Tuesday.

Commissioners Bobby Lieb and Julie Westendorff agreed the current development situation fails to warrant such an action.

“There may be some incremental revisions (to the county land-use code) that may make sense, but as far as putting all development on hold, I don’t see us having met the legal burden. I don’t see that our code is inadequate to the point that it justifies moratorium,” Westendorff said.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who pushed for the county to consider a moratorium in the first place, continued to support a temporary halt on shale drilling activity to allow the county time to re-evaluate and strengthen its natural-gas and oil regulations.

Counties have an implied authority to enact moratoriums as long as they hold a public hearing beforehand, lay out specific reasons for the moratorium and end the moratorium when those goals are completed.

El Paso County and Boulder County have enacted moratoriums on natural-gas and oil development in recent years because their regulations were either outdated or nonexistent.

La Plata County began moratorium discussions after news that Houston-based Swift Energy Co. planned to drill two exploratory shale-oil wells in the southwest part of the county.

The commissioners varied in their opinions of how well the county’s regulations cover shale-oil drilling.

Lieb described the county as a forerunner in working with and regulating the natural-gas and oil industry on a local level.

“We have a whole chapter dedicated to just this one use. We were the first county to adopt an MOU process for additional impacts. I would argue we happen to know what we’re doing.” Lieb said. “I have to be presented with evidence that there is an imminent problem that we do not have the ability address before I consider a moratorium.”

But Lachelt, the former director of Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, said she sees major deficiencies in the county’s code, especially compared to new gas and oil rules Boulder County commissioners adopted in December.

Boulder County officials touted their regulations as “the most protective land-use regulations possible for new oil and gas development.”

Lachelt said one of her concerns is that the county’s current administrative process for approving well permits won’t allow for sufficient review of shale-well applications and their increased surface impacts.

The county’s natural resources planner and deputy county attorney said they didn’t see any “gaping holes” in the county’s regulations, but that could change once Swift commences drilling.

“Maybe after these wells go in we’ll find things we do need to include in the code,” planner Courtney Roseberry said.

As with other county discussions on shale drilling, the commissioners’ meeting room was packed with Fort Lewis Mesa property owners, city dwellers, mineral-rights holders, environmentalists and energy-industry representatives.

A handful of property owners, many of whom own mineral rights in the area, urged commissioners to let energy development move forward because the industry is already adequately regulated.

The majority of other Fort Lewis Mesa residents, joined by representatives from local environmental groups, encouraged commissioners to enact a moratorium and take time to further explore shale-drilling impacts.

The county currently knows little about what will happen with the Mancos Shale, including details related to water use, infrastructure needs, job creation and waste disposal for the Swift wells, said Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project and vice chairman of the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations.

Though opting against pursuing a moratorium, commissioners left open the possibility of making smaller changes to drilling rules.

One revision commissioners briefly discussed would require operators to notify well owners within a certain distance of the well bore before beginning fracking operations.

Westendorff Enlargephoto