Steamboat Springs Editor's note: This story has been corrected from its original version. Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush supports a moratorium on oil and gas permits.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners heard strong public sentiment Tuesday night for a moratorium on new permits for oil and gas wells. However, at the end of the night, two of the three commissioners sent a strong signal that they would prefer to continue strengthening the regulations and conditions they place on energy exploration rather than putting a temporary halt on new permit applications.
“I would not be in favor of a moratorium,” Commissioner Doug Monger said after hearing two hours of public comments. “We only have three or four wells a year. I think we took big steps a month ago when we took care of our road regulations.”
“Right now, the way I feel is that we can create conditions to protect public health, safety and welfare,” Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said. “We have the ability to put really stringent conditions on oil and gas.”
Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush sided with many of those in the crowd, saying that she believes a moratorium would be appropriate.
With at least 80 interested people overflowing the Commissioners Hearing Room in the Routt County Courthouse, Routt County Planning Department Director Chad Phillips began the meeting by describing some of the ways in which the county might update its current oil and gas regulations. They include requiring drilling companies to use closed systems to handle the liquids that come out of bore holes rather than open pits, requiring green drilling and fracking fluids that do not contain toxic chemicals, requiring energy companies to participate in regional and countywide air-quality monitoring, limiting flaring of ambient natural gas and encouraging the use of electric motors on well-pad equipment whenever possible.
Speaking for the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley, Paul Stettner expressed concern for water quality and urged commissioners to entertain a moratorium while they work to beef up regulations.
“Once you destroy groundwater, you’ve destroyed it for good,” Stettner said. “We believe it’s in the best interest of Routt County for the public to get proactive. We believe county and state regs are inadequate.”
Stettner also urged the county to take enforcement into its own hands by sponsoring a compliance officer to ensure energy companies are living up to the conditions of their permits.
Monger said the idea of contracting with a compliance officer to visit drilling sites was a concept he could embrace.
Chuck McConnell urged those at the meeting to look at the growing interest in energy exploration in Northwest Colorado in terms of its potential economic benefits.
“Our current unemployment rate is about 8.1 percent,” McConnell said. “And right here in Routt County, there are hundreds of skilled workers, construction workers and truck drivers. In North Dakota (where energy exploration has boomed), unemployment is less than 4.5 percent. In about two years, we face the potential of much-decreased revenue to the county from property taxes. It looks to me, if that occurs, we could see decreased services. … I think we can surely solve problems that might come up in Routt County so we can relieve some of the suffering” of people who are out of work.
Mark Stewart, a resident of the rural Saddle Mountain Ranchettes subdivision, identified himself as an air-quality specialist who has worked for Xcel Energy for 15 years. He said he thinks the county has an obligation to protect the environmental quality of the region from the potential threat that a well permit being sought by Quicksilver Resources could bring.
“I’m not against responsible oil and gas exploration,” Stewart said. “The lease that is in our neighborhood is supposedly good for 47 years. That affects my son for the next 47 years. I think they should test our water for 47 years.”
Joan Ryan, who represents the owner of Wolf Mountain Ranch, where Quicksilver is waiting to learn the results of a newly drilled oil well, said she is reassured that it is possible to protect the strong conservation values on the ranch while living with an oil well.
“We have pretty much been successful working with Quicksilver,” Ryan said. “The oil company is paying for a consultant to establish baseline (environmental quality). I think we can blend the production while protecting everything that’s important out there.”
In a response to a question from Ryan, county attorney John Merrill said state law provides fairly narrow conditions on when counties can impose moratoriums. He added there is case law that suggests that in the case of companies that already hold a drilling lease on a well site, where the three- to five-year window to drill is ticking, counties would have to be careful with regard to property rights to protect themselves from a takings suit.
“It makes it quite clear, in my mind. There has to be a balancing act between the interests of the landowner and the public in adopting a moratorium,” Merrill said.
Saddle Mountain resident Sandy Kebodeaux left the commissioners with a poignant request.
“I want to know why it’s happening in a residential area where it’s going to affect so many people, when there are so many thousands of acres out there,” Kebodeaux said. “We’re going to be affected by that every single day, where if it was set two miles down the road, almost no one could notice it. That would solve a lot of my anguish.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com