Sunday, October 30, 2011

As energy drilling moves into backyards, Colorado Front Range counties ponder regulations

One evening in January, El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen met with about 16 people in a constituent's living room to talk about the wave of oil and gas leasing that was sweeping the area.
"It was a new issue," Lathen said. "I explained the county didn't have any regulations on oil and gas drilling."
In August, Lathen was part of a town-hall meeting on oil and gas leasing, and this time nearly 400 people packed a meeting room.
The arc between those two meetings in El Paso County — which is now drafting oil and gas regulations — reflects what is happening up and down the Front Range.
County meetings and town halls have drawn hundreds of residents, citizen groups have formed, and Elbert, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, like El Paso, are preparing to adopt oil and gas development rules.
"We are fast-tracking rules," said Arapahoe County Commissioner Fred Weddig. "We felt like we are playing catch-up."
The trend, however, has provoked concern from state regulators and the industry.
"Colorado already has the most comprehensive rules in the nation," said Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group. "County rules could completely stifle the industry."
David Neslin, director of the state's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said, "We believe oil and gas development is most effectively and efficiently regulated at the state level."
The wave of oil and gas leasing was sparked by the discovery of oil in the Niobrara formation, which stretches from southern Colorado into Wyoming.
To get at the oil requires the use of cutting-edge drilling techniques and hydrofracturing, or fracking, in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the well under pressure.
Focus on homeowners
The activity in the counties is being driven by the feeling that they are ill-prepared to cope with a drilling boom and that the state regulations don't address some residents' worries.
"We are trying to regulate an industrial activity in what is basically a residential area," said Joe'l Lambe, a Douglas County homeowner.
Lambe helped found Landowners Alliance for NE Douglas County, or LAND, to deal with oil and gas leasing issues.
Neslin said state rules enable it to put additional conditions on permits in more developed areas — and counties can participate as a "local designee" in the permitting process.
Some homeowners and local officials say that isn't enough.
"There are questions of quality of life," said Jill Duvall, a homeowner who organized the Elbert County Oil and Gas Interest Group, or ECOGIG. "There are questions about protecting property values. The state rules focus on drilling a well."

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