Oil

La Plata County commissioners direct staff on oil and gas setbacks – The Durango Herald

Rules aim to strike a balance between desires of the industry and environmentalists

The draft of chapter 90 must go before the La Plata County Planning Commission and county commissioners for final approval. (Durango Herald file)

La Plata County commissioners indicated approval for a draft of the setbacks section of the proposed chapter 90 of the land-use code, which regulates the gas and oil industry. The commissioners directed staff Tuesday to move forward with minor revisions of the chapter.

If approved, the code would adopt the state’s rules regarding the mandatory distances between natural gas wells and different kinds of infrastructure. However, the proposed rules are also more restrictive than those adopted by the state in certain circumstances.

In four cases, the county would require a larger setback than those enumerated in the rules developed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

La Plata County versus COGCC setbacks
La Plata County setback COGCC setback
Surface property line 500 feet 150 feet
Commercial or industrial buildings 500 feet No rule
Residential building units and high occupancy building 500 feet Zero to 2,000 feet
Reciprocal setbacks from other oil and gas facilities 500 feet No rule
Pipelines 50 feet No rule

According to the county’s draft rules, oil and gas infrastructure must be a minimum of 500 feet from surface property lines, commercial buildings, industrial buildings, residential building units, high-occupancy buildings and existing gas and oil facilities.

Perhaps the most noteworthy direction commissioners gave to staff was to add a rule mandating a nonnegotiable 500-foot setback for wellheads from residential and high-occupancy buildings.

Operators may still apply to build infrastructure within 2,000 feet of residential building units and high-occupancy buildings according to the four so-called “offramps” provided in the COGCC’s rule. The current draft of the county’s language includes these offramps, with one modification.

Building owners and tenants may allow an operator to install a well pad within 2,000 feet with informed consent; the county regulation defines and clarifies the definition of informed consent.

“These regulations and our proposed Chapter 90 draft suits the needs of our community and our experience that is unique to La Plata County,” Christy Kost, natural resources planner for the county, told commissioners during her presentation.

Commissioner Clyde Church highlighted the fact that the regulations are relatively similar to those that currently exist.

“It’s what we have been using for many years, the developers are familiar with it, it is consistent with COGCC. … I don’t think we can add much more to it that would improve it,” Church said from the dais.

The county opted not to revise chapter 90 when it adopted a new land-use code in 2020 as a matter of practicality. On a statewide level, the COGCC was in the process of drafting new regulations in accordance with the 2019 Oil and Gas Conservation Act, and so the county waited until the minimum regulations from the state had been enacted.

Kost noted that the county has been a leader in regulating the industry and prioritizing health, safety and the environment.

“I certainly feel we could be considered a role model that takes a lead on local oversight,” said county spokesman Ted Holteen. “I think we’re pretty proud of our role.”

The process of revising the highly technical and complex regulations has been a rather lengthy one that has pitted environmentalists against the industry.

San Juan Citizens Alliance organized a small grassroots movement of constituents pushing for a mandatory 2,000-foot setback across the board, while oil and gas industry representatives tried to prevent any regulation beyond what COGCC has already imposed.

San Juan Citizens Alliance offered public comment and raised the question of whether the “substantially equivalent protections” rule was protective enough. The rule is one of the four “offramps.” It states that an operator can apply to site a well pad within 2,000 feet no closer than 500 feet of a residential or high-occupancy building if the operator can provide substantially equivalent protections.

In response, county staff examined six applications that the state had approved in 2022 that had cited substantially equivalent protections. Of the six permits, all of which were issued in Weld County, five locations would have been denied in La Plata County as a result of the nonnegotiable 500-foot setback rule.

“This verifies to staff that the proposed County regulations can supersede and halt applications that do not comply with the land use code,” Kost wrote in a memorandum to commissioners.

In a letter submitted to commissioners, Michelina Paulek, executive director of the oil and gas trade organization the Energy Council, pushed back against the county’s attempts to enact regulation stricter than what the state has already imposed.

“The County, outside seeking to assert ‘local control,’ has not provided any basis for why it seeks to further restrict development,” Paulek wrote.

Throughout the process, industry representatives have stressed that the COGCC put extensive work into developing its rules and argued that no further regulation was necessary.

The commissioners seemed to strike a balance between the two interests.

“I believe that (the draft) provides the level of protection as well as local control that is desired and that is fair,” Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said as she gave staff direction.

Before the new draft becomes code it will go before the Planning Commission and county commissioners for approval, providing additional time for public comment.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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