Oil and gas development is coming to Routt County. It is only a question of the magnitude of its presence. It is important for all of us to become educated. In the past three months, I have learned a lot about oil and gas exploration and production, and there is a lot more to learn.
The three main things that I have learned are: 1) our natural environment, our air, water and rural lands are threatened; 2) the rules and regulations of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to which the Routt County Board of Commissioners defer are not adequate to protect our environment; and 3) the most cost-effective way to deal with the possible negative impacts is to put the industry’s current best management practices in place as rules and regulations for every drilling permit. If a problem arises from oil and gas development, it will be expensive to clean up, and it may be too late.
One of the most important ways to reduce the possible negative impacts is through increasing the well pad spacing requirements. It is obvious that increasing the spacing requirements from the existing COGCC rules of one well pad per 40 acres to a greater spacing would not only decrease the area disturbed but also decrease the negative impacts. For example, the industry could avoid placing wells in floodplains or close to rivers and streams.
With greater well spacing, Routt County and the industry would be able to place well pads in locations that reduce the risks of ground/surface water pollution, the impacts to natural and scenic areas, the degradation of agricultural lands, the problems of proximity to residential developments and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Also, by clustering wells and the associated production equipment together, the per-well air emissions can be minimized.
Horizontal drilling is an accepted technique for the production of oil from the Niobrara Shale, the target of the recent exploration in Routt County. The industry standard for horizontal drilling is a spacing between well pads of anywhere from 640 acres to 1,280 acres. Six hundred and forty acres for each well pad, with each well pad containing multiple wells, should become the required industry standard in Routt County.
COGCC, a state-legislated commission with a mission of facilitating oil and gas development, is dedicated to set rules and regulations for all of Colorado, not taking into account the differences in the topography, environment, culture and economy of Colorado’s 65 counties. The Routt County Board of Commissioners, which has deferred to the COGCC, is unwilling to establish regulations that would protect Routt County’s environment, rural culture and tourism-based economy. Both of these entities need to be encouraged and pressured to change.
Oil and gas development in Routt County can be managed so that it would have minimal impact to the environment. With active management on the local level, the quality of life of Routt County’s residents, their children and their grandchildren could be maintained. The vision of Routt County that the community has used to manage past growth should be used as a guide for this new challenge.
It is up to residents to push for a change to the established rules and regulations that are ineffective in protecting the natural environment. If we want to create the community that we want, we need to educate ourselves and our elected officials so we can change the system. We need to find a way to force our elected county commissioners to encourage and put pressure on COGCC to allow regulations that protect our unique rural landscape. The existing regulatory system is broken. Unless there is change, Routt County will not be able to manage coming oil and gas development.
Member of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley’s Oil and Gas Committee and a member of the Routt County Oil and Gas Working Group