Wolf Mountain builds access to new oil well before permit OK’d | SteamboatToday.com

Wolf Mountain builds access to new oil well before permit OK’d

— When representatives of Quicksilver Resources appear before the Routt County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday night seeking approval for their plans to drill their newest oil well on Wolf Mountain, both groups will be confronted with an awkward fact.

Brent Romick, who represents Wolf Mountain Ranch owner Bob Waltrip, confirmed Friday that under his supervision, the new road to the proposed well up the lower flanks of the mountain, along with grading and excavation of the pad for the well known as Pirtlaw 32-09, already have been built. They were built in advance of final county approval of the special use permit needed to drill the well.

County planning staff wrote in its summary of recommendations this week that the commissioners need to "determine if this permit should be approved, approved conditionally, tabled or denied based on the existing non-compliance created by the property owner."

Documents on file at the county reflect that Quicksilver Resources engineer Heather McLaughlin-Sloop has said her company didn’t oversee the well pad work. However, county planning staff has suggested in a memo that the pre-approval construction still could pose a problem when it comes time to approve, table or deny a permit for the new well.

"Even though construction was conducted by the property owner, the special use permit is based on the application submitted by (Quicksilver) which included the access and well pad location and will fully benefit (Quicksilver) in any future operations at the site," the staff memo reads.

The county's Road and Bridge Department issued a stop work order for the road and well pad Nov. 21, but most of the work already was complete.

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Romick oversees numerous conservation easements on the ranch that is a haven for wildlife where it overlooks Morgan Bottom from the north side of U.S. Highway 40 between Milner and Hayden, about 15 miles west of Steamboat Springs.

He said the construction was commenced to protect wildlife conservation easements in the area of the well pad, one for bald eagles roosting through the coldest days of winter and a second to protect the mating and breeding leks of grouse. He said the ranch would not condone requests for variances to the easements that could result from putting Quicksilver in a time squeeze.

"We will enforce these conservation values with utmost diligence," Romick said. "We have to. The county needs to pay attention to windows on the wildlife restrictions, and they're very stringent as far as we're concerned."

Romick said Routt County has failed to take into consideration the narrow window of time between the end of the bald eagle constraints and the beginning of the grouse constraints on that portion of the large ranch.

Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife Area Wildlife Manager Jim Haskins confirmed in a memo to Romick on Nov. 15 that a list of best management practices on conservation easements calls for no human disturbance within a half-mile of any active bald eagle winter roost site from Nov. 15 to Feb. 28, except for periodic visits.

Romick said Friday that the eagles already are roosting in trees near the well site, though Haskins wrote he is not aware that is the case.

Another rule discourages drilling activities near grouse leks between March 15 and July 31.

Romick said he thought it was urgent to get the road built and the well pad site prepared in advance of the eagles' arrival in order for the well to be drilled between wildlife protection periods in the first two weeks of March 2013.

"It is impossible to construct the support road, oil location pad and drilling a period from March 1 to March 14," Romick wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to County Manager Tom Sullivan.

He explained the urgency is heightened because Quicksilver needs to spud, or begin drilling the well, by spring to live up to the terms of its subsurface mineral rights lease with another company, Victor America. There is a second lease over the top of Quicksilver's lease that is held by another exploration company that could step in if Quicksilver has not drilled the well, Romick said, and Quicksilver is Wolf Mountain's preferred operator.

Adding a note of irony to the issue is the fact that after the County Planning Commission voted Oct. 18 to recommend approval of the special use permit for the Wolf Mountain well, another oil and gas operator approached the county requesting a process to allow construction of an access road and well pad before the final approval of the county commissioners, and Sullivan, working with the county legal department, reached an agreement to allow just that. Because the county staff anticipated that the same process might be desirable for Quicksilver with regard to Pirtlaw 32-09, it forwarded an agreement to Quicksilver on Nov. 8 to make them aware.

The response came back that Quicksilver was not in a position to use that process in this case but that the company would consider it in the future.

Click here to read the full county staff report on the Pirtlaw 32-09 oil well application as well as the communication from Wolf Mountain Ranch representative Brent Romick and owner Bob Waltrip.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com