by Carla J. Dolce
LA VETA- On July 8, Citizens for Huerfano County (CHC), a local nonprofit corporation, sued the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation (COGCC) and Shell Western Exploration and Production, Inc. (Shell), citing violations of COGCC Rules and state laws during the processing of Shell’s application for a permit to drill an exploratory gas well two miles west of La Veta. CHC, which has about 150 members, is seeking to enjoin Shell’s drilling pending a hearing before the COGCC, to which CHC claims it is entitled. CHC’s complaint also alleges Shell’s drilling permit should be withdrawn for COGCC’s failure to notify the county of Shell’s permit application and due to Shell’s failure to provide information required in its application, such as whether hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas, is anticipated during drilling.
According to Sandy Borthick, the registered agent for CHC, the events leading to the lawsuit began after Walsenburg’s sale of water to Shell for drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking). CHC members began investigating and learned that the county had a right to request a hearing with COGCC. Borthick says the hearing may have resulted in the COGCC requiring Shell to provide better protections against well-publicized dangers of drilling and fracking. Despite an outpouring of opposition to Shell’s drilling and a request by CHC representative Keli Kringel that the county request the hearing, the county commissioners refused and waived the right to a hearing.
CHC then learned COGCC failed to notify the county of Shell’s permit application as required under its regulations. On July 11, after CHC filed suit, COGCC sent a letter to the county admitting its errors. Director David Neslin stated, “The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has regrettably determined that we did not provide Huerfano County with formal notice of: Shell Western Exploration and Production’s (SWEPI’s) application for permit to drill . . . or our conditional approval of the APD.”
To correct its errors, COGCC suspended the conditional approval of Shell’s permit and gave the county up to 20 days to submit comments. Two days later, at their next meeting on July 13, the county commissioners unanimously voted to give no further comment to COGCC on Shell’s permit, thus avoiding a potential delay in Shell’s drilling plans.
Borthick says this doesn’t affect CHC’s case as the county only wived the county’s right and not the rights of citizens to a hearing. Borthick is confident CHC will prevail in its lawsuit as she passionately explains that, “We can’t afford to set a precedent that Shell or others can simply come in here and ram this down our throats without notice or proper safeguards. We have to at least be sure Shell follows the COGCC rules – and that the COGCC follows its own rules: that they notify our local government and give us a public hearing to present our proposal for safeguards that will better protect our health, water and environment.”