by Bill Knowles
WALSENBURG- Calling the HB 1041 regulations Huerfano County uses … “a good start,” Josh Joswick, a former La Plata County Commissioner and a member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, addressed the Huerfano Planning Commission last Tuesday.
He had also addressed a gathering of over 50 people at the La Veta Community Center on Monday evening. He explained to the crowd that only through regulating oil and gas development at the county level, could county commissioners assure the safety, health and well-being of the county’s residents would be guarded and that energy companies would make a profit.
Having served on the La Plata County Commission from 1993 to 2005, Joswick dealt extensively with coalbed methane operations in La Plata. In 1991, the county adopted regulations governing oil and gas development.
“We adopted those regs, the first county to do so, and promptly got sued. It ended up in the Colorado Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court upheld the county’s right to that.” The court ruled that counties could exercise their land use authority when it came to the development of oil and gas. “These regulations have been proven in court to be good,” Joswick told the crowd at La Veta last Monday evening.
It was a ground breaking move on the part of the Colorado Supreme Court and since then many counties in the state have adopted HB 1041 land use regulations. Huerfano County adopted the regulations almost verbatim from the La Plata County regulations, for the first time in 2009, then with some revisions in August of this year.
“My experience with regulations has been that under them the industry has thrived, mineral owners have made money, and land owners have been protected,” Joswick told the planning commission. “These regulations worked well for us because we are 330 miles from Denver, and while that has generally worked well, it has not worked well when we needed responses from Denver, especially about oil and gas.
“What the county can do with local regulations cannot keep the industry from operating without profit.” The regulations deal with surface issues leaving the state to regulate issues “down hole.”
“Operational conflict” was the pivotal phrase on which the Colorado Supreme Court hinged its decision. The supreme court ruled that La Plata County had the authority to regulate as long as it did not create an “operational conflict” with the state. But they didn’t define operational conflict, leaving the phrase to thrive in a gray area.
Huerfano County defined the term in their HB 1041 regulations to mean, “…a conflict that would materially impede or destroy the state’s interest in the development, production or utilization of oil and gas; and the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.”
Joswick also noted that the La Plata County regulations were on an evolutionary arc. “They aren’t the same regs we started with. We are continually improving them.”
At the end of Joswick’s presentation to the Planning Commission, chair Max Vezzani opened the floor for questions from the commissioners and then the audience. The commissioners seemed interested in finding areas where they could improve the regulations.
When asked by Keli Kringel, a Citizens for Huerfano County member, about whether Huerfano County’s regulations covered natural gas development, she was told they don’t. They cover coalbed methane development. That’s why Shell Oil’s development falls under a Conditional Use Permit rather than an HB 1041 application. It was noted that the HB 1041regulations in Huerfano County need to be changed to cover drilling for natural gas.