Supreme Court ruling gives weight to water over energy

Monday’s Colorado Supreme Court decision finding the state’s coal-bed methane gas wells must get well-water permits is yet one more arrow in the quiver of a natural-gas industry claiming increasing environmental and therefore economic persecution.

Industry representatives Monday were quick to point out that falling natural gas prices and skyrocketing regulation have combined to drastically curtail the formerly booming industry on the state’s Western Slope, where some experts say drilling will be off by 40 percent by June.

Monday’s ruling, sparked by a lawsuit filed in 2005 by ranchers in Archuleta County, only affects about 5,000 coal-bed methane wells in Las Animas, Archuleta and San Juan counties, according to the state, but it comes hard on the heels of the State Legislature passing more stringent oil and gas drilling regulations in March.

Those new regs require more intensive regulatory consideration of wildlife, air and water quality and social impacts before permitting natural-gas wells. Industry proponents tried to delay passage of the new regs for a year, claiming they would be too much of a burden given the current global economic crisis. Supporters of the regs argued the economic collapse caused sharply lower gas prices, not the new regs going into effect.

Monday’s ruling is yet one more finding giving at least equal weight to water and energy resources. The justices found that companies that use water to release methane must figure out how to augment the water supply if it impacts other nearby senior water rights, such as those held by ranchers.

Recent studies and courts cases have focused on water, and its relative scarcity on the Western Slope, as a major factor in permitting future energy development, from coal to natural gas to oil shale.

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