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New oil and gas regs for Huerfano County

by Susan Simons

HUERFANO- On December 24,  the moratorium on new permits for oil and gas exploration in Huerfano County expires.  On December 16, the Planning Commission and County Commissioners introduced to the public the next-to-final draft of a new set of regulations for oil and gas generally and for Coalbed Methane (CBM) in particular.  The development  of these regulations has taken just about one year.  Thanks to La Plata County, our county government has participated in a crash course on the long-term impacts of unregulated CBM exploration, learned fine distinctions between county and state rights to regulate, and developed comprehensive land use regulations that the State Attorney General has called “appropriate and defensible.”

    County regulations must not impede the rights of the industry to fully develop the mineral estate.  They must not interfere with state goals to support oil and gas exploration.

    However, counties do have the right and duty to “protect and promote the health, safety, values, convenience, order, prosperity, or general welfare of the present and future residents of the county” 

    There are limits.  County regulations cannot address widespread concerns about the quantity of water pumped out of deep aquifers to release methane from coal seams.  It cannot regulate the chemicals which may be used to release methane from coal seams.  It cannot regulate the quality of water left to evaporate in pits, re-injected into aquifers, or released into streams through stormwater run-off or other natural events.

    Where counties can regulate, Huerfano has done so.  The 26-page document covers permitting requirements, regulations for minor and major facilities, and performance standards.

    Throughout, there are protections for public safety:  the regulations require a detailed facilities map, a 24-hour emergency phone number for at least two persons, and a written plan for emergencies such as fire, explosion, leaks, ruptures, spills, or toxic gas emissions.  They also require that industry keep a chemical inventory, updated every two months and available to the Huerfano County Health Department within three days of a written request.

    The regulations also include protections for affected landowners.  Before permit approval, the industry is required to notify landowners living within a quarter mile of the proposed well pad.  Landowners may request a public site visit with the applicant and the Planning Commission before, during and after the permitting process, and there is the possibility of  an informal dispute resolution meeting to resolve differences.  The performance standards require attention to such daily nuisances as noise, air quality, vibrations, weed control, visual impact, and road maintenance.  There are also requirements for restoration of properties.

    Also, the proposed regulations seek to protect the county’s natural beauty and resources.

    They state that oil and gas facilities may not be placed in a geologic hazard area which includes fault lines, floodplains, wetlands and slopes exceeding 30 percent and that industry must consider impact on wildlife according to DOW regulations.  One criteria used to decide whether or not to permit a well will be suitability of the site including cultural and historical value and resource values such as open space and prime farmland.

    The Planning Commission and County Commissioners will hold a joint public hearing whenever a permit is requested for a major facility.  Three of the criteria which will be used to approve or deny a facility are need for the facility, which the industry must demonstrate, adequacy of existing roads, and compatibility with existing uses

    Early in January, the Planning Commission will send these new regulations to the commissioners with their recommendation for approval.  The goal is to provide maximum protection for surface owners and to hold industry responsible for best practices while not impeding industry’s right to develop mineral leases.  The Planning Commission and County Commissioners thank Steve Channel, County Planner/Code Enforcement Officer, and John Galusha, County Administrator, for their careful work on this project.  In turn, they thank La Plata County government, stating, “We couldn’t have done it without them.”