Steamboat Springs The Routt County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to table for five weeks a request from a division of Shell Oil to drill a well on a grassy parcel owned by the State Land Board about two miles south of Yampa Valley Regional Airport.
Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said requested changes by Shell representatives led to a tabling to allow time to work out the details. The commissioners will take up the matter again on Oct. 18.
“With the conditions recommended by (Routt County) Planning Commission, we could allow this permit to be approved today,” Stahoviak said. “Having said that, the petitioner wants to revise the wildlife recommendations by Colorado (Division of) Parks and Wildlife to make sure they are consistent with (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) conditions. We have conditions of approval that would allow the petitioner to work with (Routt County) Road and Bridge to work with a consultant on road repairs. But Road and Bridge wants more time. I’m more concerned about doing it right rather than doing it quick. I truly am.”
Michael Bergstrom, Shell’s senior regulatory adviser in Northwest Colorado, said he felt some urgency to begin building a road off Routt County Road 37 to the well pad site and begin construction before winter weather becomes an issue.
“Since our time is short, we’d love to get out there and start this project before Nov. 1,” Bergstrom said.
However, unresolved issues brought up by Shell and members of county staff led to the tabling vote. Issues include different approaches to water-quality monitoring, air pollution, interactions with the county Road and Bridge Department and Colorado Department of Transportation reports on pertinent highway intersections that aren’t in county hands.
County officials consistently have said that groundwater-quality monitoring is a hallmark of their oil and gas drilling regulations. In particular, Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush has said that third-party testing of water wells before drilling begins is a measure that would protect energy exploration companies and neighboring landowners. County regulations also call for monthly monitoring during drilling and ongoing monitoring during the production phase.
However, Bergstrom said monthly water-quality monitoring during drilling operations is unwarranted.
“We’ve identified a couple of wells within a mile” of the well pad, Bergstrom said. “What’s unnecessary is the timing of the sampling. Groundwater is a very slow-moving process. If contaminants were to get away from our (site), groundwater moves at 10 feet a year. Monthly sampling would be collecting a background sample over and over and over again. Monthly sampling generates a lot of data but doesn’t focus on your concern.”
He asked the commissioners to approve his company’s permit Tuesday with conditions matching those of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Steamboat resident Rich Tremaine, who identified himself as one of the managers of the T&T Cattle Co. that neighbors the drilling site, said he was attending the meeting to understand the wells’ proximity to a drainage, including a pond and springs that he and his partners depend on for watering livestock.
“We have water rights in that drainage. We’re the sole adjacent property owner here, and we haven’t heard from Shell,” Tremaine said. “The nice words they say about protecting property owners certainly do not come into play here.”
He added that a portion of the ranch, including the drainage, is covered by a conservation easement held by the Nature Conservancy and that to his knowledge the conservancy is unaware of the potential impact on the drainage.
Bergstrom assured Tremaine that any chemical or oil spills on the well pad would be contained by earthen berms and captured in a small containment pond inside the perimeter of the berm.
But water-quality issues were just one of several issues the commissioners felt had not been resolved sufficiently.
Stahoviak said the petitioners are asking the county to revise conditions protecting wildlife, but county officials have not heard back on that matter from the Division of Parks and Wildlife. She characterized Shell’s assurances that noise pollution will be mitigated as vague. And she added that it isn’t clear whether the Road and Bridge Department has sufficient personnel to serve as the construction manager for any improvements to county roads that would be paid for by Shell.
Commissioner Mitsch Bush agreed.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the open-ended nature of some of these issues,” she said. “If this well goes to production, what about air-quality issues? There were many references today to (Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) conditions. But I didn’t have those.”
Commissioner Doug Monger pointed out that the Shell permit application is coming forward at a time when the Board of Commissioners has been beefing up its oil and gas drilling regulations and preparing for more activity than previously has taken place here.
“In the past, we would have approved this and moved on. I’m all right with tabling right now,” Monger said. “I don’t think this is a stall factor. It’s more about needing more information.”
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com