Battlement natural gas activists cheer drilling slowdown for health study

Activists monitoring a massive natural gas drilling proposal that would see rigs sited among the homes of Western Slope retirement community Battlement Mesa say Denver-based Antero Resources appears to be putting the brakes on the plan while it participates in an unprecedented health impact study.

The view in LA (Jonathan Alcorn: Flickr

The Health Impact Assessment or HIA first reported by the Colorado Independent in November is a tool backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts that has been used in other parts of the world adversely impacted by oil and gas development, including Alaska. An HIA has never been conducted in the rich gas fields of Colorado.

Although Pew won’t fund the assessment – which examines air and water quality, traffic, noise and other health concerns stemming from drilling activity – it will lend some consulting expertise, according to Garfield County environmental health manager Jim Rada.

The county will pay for the $150,000 study from its general fund. The University of Colorado School of Public Health will conduct the assessment. Garfield County also is working with CU on designing a health study for the entire county.

Rada says Antero Resources has been fully participating in the early stages of the Battlement study, which was just contractually agreed to with CU last week. He said he has not heard that Antero is delaying its application to the state for a Comprehensive Drilling Plan (CDP), which was reportedly on track to be submitted some time in May.

But Dave Devanney of the grassroots Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) group says Antero’s Jon Black told him at a meeting of the Battlement Mesa Service Association that the company is deferring filing its permit request to the state until the HIA is complete. Rada says that will likely be late August or September.

“To me, this appears to be an important shift in emphasis – away from ‘drill baby drill’ to more concern with public health,” Devanney wrote in a recent BCC group email “Let’s hope we can keep this momentum going.”

A better product for everyone

Preliminary plans from Antero called for 200 wells from 10 different well pads within the Battlement Mesa planned unit development, which was approved by Garfield County in the 1970s as a company town for Exxon’s oil shale development that went bust in the 1980s. Because of that approval, Antero also has to seek a special-use permit from the county.

The Comprehensive Drilling Plan (CDP) itself, according to state officials, is a purely voluntary planning tool under the state’s new oil and gas drilling regulations that allows for a more comprehensive review of a larger area of planned drilling activity. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which oversees drilling activity in the state, only requires a well-by-well permitting process.

Antero’s Black, reached by phone at the company’s Rifle office Tuesday, deferred comment to Antero’s Denver headquarters, but did say, “I can neither admit nor deny there’s a process, and that process can’t be compromised, and ultimately we want a better product for everyone.”

Kevin Kilstrom, Antero’s vice president for production in Denver, did not return a call seeking further comment.

Awaiting health study results

Kate Fay, energy manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said she was not aware Antero had changed its filing timeline for its Comprehensive Drilling Plan. The CDPHE, however, is interested in seeing the results of the health study.

“A report like that is not going to be used to affect a permit decision,” Fay said. “It seems to me that recommendations from something like that our department would look at in considering how we do our day-to-day job. If suddenly there’s a whole lot of information that warrants the department to rethink any of its regulations, then we’d pursue it through the regulatory process.”

Fay added the CDPHE has required an air-quality monitoring project that’s just getting under way for some Antero drilling permits just outside of the Battlement Mesa PUD.

The BCC’s Devanney said increased drilling activity by Antero, EnCana and Williams just outside of the PUD seems to indicate intensifying interest in extracting natural gas in and around the community of more than 5,000.

“Because of the recent expansion of natural gas drilling just outside the PUD boundary, the BCC leadership is now pursuing a request for a moratorium on new drilling close to the PUD – proximity to be determined,” he wrote to BCC members. “We will discuss this with our public health contacts and attempt to gain county support of a request to the COGCC.”

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