New rules give Routt County, public more say in future oil and gas drilling applications
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — About a decade ago, Routt County was a popular place to pursue building an oil well. Commissioner Tim Corrigan recalls it was estimated there were as much as a half billion barrels of oil in the county just waiting to be recovered.
“My guess is that number was probably exaggerated, but at the time, the developers were really pretty excited about Routt County” Corrigan said.
There was a frenzy of activity with a number of larger operations leasing a significant amount of land, and the county was receiving a lot of applications for drilling permits, Corrigan said.
Many of the wells that were drilled turned out not to be that profitable, mainly because of the geology of the area. Rather than long lines of shale that can be drilled horizontally, in Routt County, these layers are often fractured, making drilling less efficient.
A frustrating part of this for Corrigan was that the county had very little say over what drilling permits in the county would be approved. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission preempted the county’s role at the state level, Corrigan said, leaving commissioners with very few options for impacting these permits.
“There were drilling permits in areas that we thought were inappropriate,” Corrigan said. “We could talk about it and complain about it, but it was not grounds for Routt County to deny a drilling permit.”
Even when Colorado Parks and Wildlife would agree it was a bad place to drill, commissioners still wouldn’t have any recourse, he said.
A 2019 law passed in the Colorado legislature sought to change that, starting with how state regulators look at the oil and gas industry. The new mission statement for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says it will “regulate” the industry rather than “foster” its development.
It also puts emphasis on protecting the public health, safety, wildlife and other environmental impacts of a new drilling operation.
The impact this law will have on Routt County remains to be seen.
While the county has not dealt with a drilling application in years, one such application has been tabled by the Board of Routt County Commissioners in recent weeks and will be reviewed in the near future. Commissioners tabled the application to learn more about the new regulations from one of the state’s regulators, Commissioner John Messner said.
The goal of the new rule making is to better allow the public to participate in the process, allowing them to comment on applications for new drilling or variances, Messner said.
This was a problem when things were booming a decade ago, because the only way locals could weigh in at that time was during public comment, Corrigan said. He said it will be interesting to see whether community advocacy groups would be allowed to comment on these applications more formally, which is something they have not been able to do in the past.
The rules also elevate the importance of environmental justice, Messner said, the first such rules to do so in the state. They will highlight disproportionately affected communities and work with them to mitigate those effects through the permitting process, he said.
The new regulations also require setbacks when a well borders various types of land, increase protection for wildlife management and water resources and put an end to routine flaring and venting of wells, Messner said.
Corrigan said he has not studied the current drilling application that is before the board, and he couldn’t comment on it anyway. While there is just one application now, several companies still have active leases on Bureau of Land Management land within the county, he said.
If these leases are brought up for drilling permits in the future, the county has more tools to challenge them. Last time the county was caught off guard and tried to rewrite their regulations on the fly, Corrigan said.
“We have a really good opportunity to take a close look at our regulations in light of the new rules and make sure that they address future issues now rather than in the middle of a boom,” Corrigan said. “If it comes to pass that we simply don’t get any new oil and gas permits, then so be it, but it is a good time to take a look at it.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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