Landowners Question Special Treatment for Housing Oil and Gas Workers

PhotobucketGarfield County is considering regulations that would allow oil and gas companies to house workers on well sites, even if the rigs are on private property. “Not fair,” argue landowners who say the county would be giving the energy industry special zoning privileges and taking away private-property rights.Claiming safety issues, oil and gas companies want to place housing for essential personnel on all drilling sites in Garfield County. The energy industry has also asked the county to lift requirements such as special hearings, building permits, and certain water and waste treatment regulations on temporary housing units, commonly called man camps, for eight workers or less.

Although most companies do seek a surface rights agreement, state and federal use-by-right laws allow oil and gas companies to occupy a portion of the surface in order to extract the minerals underneath without a property owner’s approval. Local citizens fear that if commissioners loosen county oversight on small man camps, they will have no options to prevent oil and gas companies from bringing in workers to live on their property.

Dick Morgan, a cattle rancher from Divide Creek near Silt, told Garfield County commissioners at an open hearing on Monday that he has a good working relationship with EnCana, which has a well pad on his property, yet he still has issues with the proposed new county rules. “No offense to industry and I understand the need to have drilling personnel living at the site, but I’m concerned when someone can move in trailers without my consent.”

Morgan also noted that the county seems to have a double standard with the oil and gas industry. “I had to divide my ranch into 35-acre sections to have a legal dwelling for my one part-time employee,” he said. “But if under these new rules I can now house eight essential personnel for my ranch without special permits, then I’m all for the changes.”

He thought construction companies, the ski industry and nonprofit organizations should get the same privileges as the oil and gas industry. “Man camps could help our affordable housing issue here in the county,” he said.

Liz Chandler, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, an organization active in drilling issues, objected to man camps on private property without county oversight. Her family members are longtime ranchers in the Silt and Rifle area.

“I don’t think that landowners should be faced with strangers living near their home,” Chandler said at the meeting. “It’s also not fair that oil and gas companies will have more property rights than the property owner if allowed to house workers without special permits. The county is not making the same regulatory standards for everyone,” Chandler said.

Following the meeting, Ross Talbott, owner of a large trailer park in the outskirts of New Castle, worried about personal safety. “I doubt there will be any criminal checks made on workers and that could be a concern for families with children.” Other citizens questioned the oil and gas industry’s reasoning to house workers on well sites based on safety issues since under the proposed new rules oil and gas companies would not be mandated to notify local emergency and fire responders of the smaller man-camp locations.

Dean Tinsley from Williams Production said the company has been working with the county planning staff on the proposed man-camp rules. “We acknowledge private-property rights but we question the need for a cumbersome and complex approval process.” He noted to the commissioners that 99 percent of their wells on private property have a surface-occupancy agreement.

PhotobucketGarfield County Commissioner John Martin felt there has been a lot of misleading press about the proposed small man-camp regulations. “We’re not trying to take away private-property rights as some claim,” he said. “We want to come to an agreement that’s fair to both sides.”

On the other hand, Commissioner Tresi Houpt didn’t want to commit to any changes in man-camp regulations. “The county doesn’t even have definitions for ‘essential personnel’ or ‘use-by-right’ yet,” she noted.

PhotobucketHoupt said that according to state statistics, nearly 70 percent of energy companies in Colorado don’t have surface agreements with landowners when they start to drill; instead they can bond onto private property without the landowner’s consent. “I have a problem agreeing to county regulations that would give homeowners no recourse or protection.”

The commissioner will continue discussing man camps at an open hearing on April 7 in Glenwood Springs.

Top photo: From Bureau of Land Management — oil rig located on the base of the Roan Plateau  Second photo: Garfield County Commissioner John Martin Third photo: Garfield County Commissioner Tr

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