Battle brews over gas regulations in Battlement Mesa

<em>Reclamation oak mats (School of Mines)</em>
Reclamation oak mats (School of Mines)

Battlement Mesa, a community of nearly 6,000 on Colorado’s Western Slope, is poised to live up to its moniker and become a legal battleground over the sticky issue of state versus local control over oil and gas drilling.

Garfield County activists concerned about plans by Denver-based Antero Resources to drill as many as 200 natural gas wells in the unincorporated Garfield County community are citing a 2006 Colorado Court of Appeals case ruling state authority didn’t totally supersede local regulations in Gunnison County.

Gunnison County sued an oil and gas company and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to uphold many of the county’s own rules governing water quality, wildlife habitat and wildfire hazards on federal lands within county boundaries.

Garfield County, because it approved the original planned unit development (PUD) for Battlement Mesa in the 1970s, when it was a workforce community for Exxon’s now-defunct oil shale project, maintains some special use review authority over Antero’s drilling plans. But where that power ends and where the COGCC’s authority begins could be a matter for a judge to decide.

Antero has yet to submit its comprehensive drilling plan for Battlement Mesa but groups such as the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Western Colorado Congress have rallied behind residents who want setbacks for drilling pads changed from the current 150 feet to 1,000 away from homes and other structures.

“If during the Garfield County special use process concerning Antero’s plan to drill within the Battlement PUD the commissioners deem that a 1,000-foot setback of well pads to residential structures best protects the public health and welfare, where would the county power end and the COGCC power begin under Rule 201?” said Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.

In typically complex legalese, Rule 201 of the new, more rigid COGCC drilling regulations that went into effect in April is unclear on the topic: “Nothing in these rules shall establish, alter, impair, or negate the authority of local and county governments to regulate land use related to oil and gas operations, so long as such local regulation is not in operational conflict with the Act or regulations promulgated thereunder.”

Robinson has asked both the county commissioners and the members of the COGCC for clarification on the topic.

“How willing are [the county commissioners] to help define or push the boundaries set by Rule 201 to protect their citizens, like the Battlement Mesa residents, from the negative ‘health, safety, and welfare’ impacts caused by drilling near residential dwellings?” Robinson said.

Robinson added the legislature may ultimately have to get involved if the COGCC agrees to a 1,000-foot setback in Battlement Mesa, either affirming or rescinding the decision based on citizen or industry pressure.

While the Colorado Attorney General’s office has said state regulation trumps local rules on oil and gas matters, Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt, who also sits on the COGCC board, is in the unique position of trying to balance two sets of concerns.

“There’s a place for all of these layers of regulation. We just need to make sure that all of the various areas are covered that need to be and that we’re not working against each other,” Houpt told the Colorado Independent last week, referring to proposed federal legislation that would regulate hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique.

Different layers of local, state and federal regulations were also a topic during a COGCC hearing last week on drilling near an old nuclear blast site near Rulison. Houpt is careful not to tip her hand on jurisdiction, but she is clearly worried about local impacts.

“It’s not an easy fix and certainly the new [COGCC] rules that we adopted this year go a long way and are a really good first step in making sure that we are developing natural resources in a proper manner in Colorado to put the appropriate protections in place,” Houpt said.

“We need to see how [the rules] play out as well and make sure that the rules are realistic for the oil and gas industry and make sure that they’re accomplishing the protections that they were created to protect.”

Robinson noted that Battlement Mesa becomes the first test case under the new rules.

“To add to the mix, is the very interesting fact that Antero’s Comprehensive Drilling Plan will be the first drilling proposal designed and tested under the new rules,” she said. “Like the first man on the moon, Battlement will be the first footprint on improved drilling practices that will hopefully better protect citizens’ health and welfare during future oil-and-gas development in Colorado.”

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