Court upholds ruling on drilling

Routt County welcomes decision

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A Colorado Court of Appeals decision to uphold local control of oil and gas drilling came as good news to Routt County commissioners.

Routt County, along with four other Colorado counties, had charged that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had overstepped its authority in a recent amendment to its rules. Last week, the appeals court agreed with the counties.

"We viewed the rule ... that the Oil and Gas Commission made was, No. 1, outside of their authority and, No. 2, it takes away local control," Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. "That's consistently a point we try to make. That is, it is important to maintain local control regarding these issues."

Routt, La Plata, Archuleta, Las Animas and San Miguel counties filed the suit against an amendment to the commission's rule 303(a), which states that "the permit to drill shall be binding with respect to any conflicting local governmental permit or land use approval process."

The amendment would take away counties' power to restrict oil and gas drilling, county commissioners said. It also would mean that if any conflicts came up between local land use issues and oil and gas drilling, the final say would be given to the oil and gas commission, Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger said.

When the commission gave that power to itself, it overstepped its statutory abilities, Monger said.

Stahoviak said that another negative consequence of giving the commission that power is that the commission is made mostly of representatives of the oil and gas industry and so is not "a totally objective" group.

The counties' case was first heard by the Denver District Court, which dismissed the claim, but that decision was reversed in the 2-1 decision by the Court of Appeals.

In that order, the appeals court said that counties have a legally protected ability to enforce land use regulations that relate to surface effects of oil and gas drilling.

"On its face, (the rule) would pre-empt local government actions beyond those that materially impede or destroy the state interest and would give oil and gas operations license to disregard local land use regulation," the appeals court said.

"This result erodes the delicate balance between local interests and state interests," Routt County Commissioner Dan Ellison said, noting that the county's regulations do not make it difficult to drill oil and gas wells.

"We have made it work, and to the best of my knowledge, there has never been a well that has been turned down," Ellison said.

Routt County Planning Director Caryn Fox confirmed that no wells have been turned down in the county.

For oil and gas drilling, an administrative special use permit is required. For coal bed methane drilling, an administrative permit for six months is required, after which time the applicant can ask for a special use permit.

After an application is received, the county will work with the applicant to put the well in the least environmentally damaging location, Fox said.

The county has fewer than 20 operational oil wells, with about a dozen coal-bed methane wells that could go into production in the future, Fox said.

Some Colorado counties have taken their regulations off the books, but Fox said she hopes Routt County will keep its regulations.

"I insisted on keeping (the regulations) over the years," Fox said. "Hopefully they'll be upheld."

The case could now go on to the Colorado Supreme Court.

-- To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com.

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