Natural gas drilling regs stirring heated debate on Western Slope

Cattle grazing in North Park. (Photo/jal0021, Flickr)

Cattle grazing in North Park. (Photo/jal0021, Flickr)

A dustup between politicians and landowners at an oil and gas royalty owners meeting in Grand Junction last weekend underscores the complexity of the new state drilling regulations — and the heated emotions they stir in some mineral-rights holders.

State Rep. Kathleen Curry caught the brunt of what she described as an unexpected and hostile line of questioning regarding the more environmentally stringent Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulations that went into effect in April after the legislature passed them earlier in the session.

“I don’t know if there was an ambush or not,” said Curry. The Democrat from Gunnison thought she was at last Saturday’s meeting to discuss legislation she previously sponsored to protect royalty owner’s rights. “But I have to take responsibility for the steps I’ve taken and the votes I’ve cast [on the drilling regs]. I’ll just be more prepared next time.”

Curry said she had attended a meeting earlier in the day of Battlement Mesa residents concerned about new drilling in the heart of town, and state wildlife and natural resources officials on hand for that meeting had offered to attend the royalty owner’s meeting. Curry, who admitted she hasn’t read the drilling regulations since March, told the officials not to come because she didn’t think the topic would come up.

The regs, in fact, quickly became the focus of the meeting.

“The tone was very hostile, but as a representative I always have to be respectful of the fact that people are often frustrated, and they clearly were with the rules,” Curry said. “Now the meeting before, the Battlement Mesa citizens meeting, that group wanted to see stricter rules, and so the contrast was fascinating.

“You go to one meeting and they say your rules don’t go far enough — because they’re having the drilling in their backyard — and then the next meeting the royalty owners say the rules go too far.”

Curry said the most contentious line of questioning came from Tom Rutledge, senior landman for Laramie Energy, who didn’t identify himself as working for the industry but clearly had an ax to grind regarding the COGCC regulations.

“The regulations are really bad,” Rutledge said by phone Thursday. “They were drafted by environmental attorneys, and the industry was completely ignored. They created a situation that was almost untenable for most operators.”

The oil and gas industry tried to delay implementation of the new rules, which took nearly two years to draft, and have since challenged them in court.

But at Saturday’s meeting in Grand Junction, Rutledge specifically complained the new rules have kept him from developing the mineral rights on land he owns in North Park in Jackson County.

“[The regulations are] so full of requirements, and you’ve got to do this, and if that doesn’t work you’ve got to try to do this, and people are just throwing up their hands, like in the case of my minerals the operator just said they can’t drill them and so basically it was a regulatory taking in my mind,” he said.

“Some people would disagree, but they’re people who aren’t in the industry and are just sitting there on the sidelines making up stories and making up problems because of a political agenda.”

Curry said it was unclear at the meeting how Rutledge’s land was impacted by the regs, but now she assumes he was referring to a restricted surface occupancy area, which prohibits a well pad being placed in the middle of wildlife habitats, like a sage grouse breeding area.

The new regs require the Division of Wildlife to be consulted and all economically and technically feasible alternatives — such as placing the well pad away from the lek and using directional drilling — to be pursued. An appeal can be filed if those alternatives aren’t feasible.

Curry, who runs cattle and is a co-owner of Tomichi Creek Natural Beef, said lawsuits filed to compel the listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act make staying out of the bird’s breeding ground critical to ranchers.

“If we lose the grouse, the whole ag industry loses, so that’s a property right issue too,” Curry said. “Why should we be subject to the new restrictions for the grouse because an adjacent landowner insisted on destroying their habitat?”

Rutledge said he was just trying to engage Curry on the issues in an open public forum but is now the target of “lies passed around by the enviro-bloggers. I just kind of need to get away and let this thing kind of cool down so I can do my job again. It’s just been very difficult to go through.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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