Routt County commissioners to decide on permit for third oil well on Wolf Mountain west of Steamboat Springs

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Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 22 to reflect that the oil well Pirtlaw 32-09 is proposed to be drilled on the northeast side of Routt County Road 70.

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What: Routt County Board of Commissioners will consider Quicksilver Resource’s request for a special use permit to drill its third oil well on Wolf Mountain between Milner and Hayden

When: 5 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Commissioners Hearing Room, Routt County Courthouse, 522 Lincoln Ave.

If Quicksilver Resources succeeds in gaining approval Tuesday night for its latest oil well on Wolf Mountain west of Steamboat Springs, it will target drilling for a 15-day window between the end of winter bald eagle roosting and the beginning of Columbian sharp-tailed grouse breeding.

Tuesday night’s hearing marks a new era in the industry here after Quicksilver and Shell Oil closed in late December on a new joint venture that will see the two energy companies sharing revenues from potential oil wells in Routt and Moffat counties. Shell’s division — Shell Western Exploration and Production Inc. — will undertake the majority of the drilling going forward.

Tuesday also marks the first permit hearing for a new Board of Commissioners after a contentious 12 months during which Quicksilver officials frequently objected to some of the conditions of approval imposed by the previous board.

Following the November 2012 election, which included the retirement of Nancy Stahoviak and the election of Diane Mitsch Bush to the Colorado General Assembly, newly minted commissioners Tim Corrigan and Steve Ivancie now join veteran Doug Monger in the hearing of oil well permit applications.

Of the 19,010 acres on Bob Waltrip’s Wolf Mountain Ranch, 16,081 are covered by conservation easements held either by The Nature Conservancy or the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the owner has gone to great lengths to enhance wildlife habitat there. However, there are independent owners of subsurface mineral rights beneath the ranch land, which has been targeted for exploration of the Niobrara shale layer more than a mile below the surface.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials have recommended that drilling not take place at the new well until after Feb. 28 because of a nearby active bald eagle winter roosting site, and then be shut down again from March 15 to July 30 because of a sharp-tailed grouse lek that is six-tenths of a mile away.

Documents on file with the county indicate Quicksilver plans to deliver its drilling rig to the pad about seven miles northeast of Hayden and on the east side of Routt County Road 70 on March 1 and drill until March 15 before shutting down operations until Aug. 15, when it would return to undertake the hydraulic fracturing phase. Quicksilver's goal is for the well to be ready for production by Aug. 30.

Quicksilver’s application for the well known as Pirtlaw 32-09 (Pirtlaw is Waltrip spelled backwards) was postponed in early December 2012 until this week at the applicant’s request after Pirtlaw went forward with construction of the road to the well site and grading of the pad without a grading and excavation permit from Routt County.

County Planning Director Chad Phillips said Monday that after initially declining to take advantage of a permit process that was developed by the county for Shell’s Tout Creek well that allows energy companies to acquire a grading and excavation permit before obtaining a drilling permit, Quicksilver did just that in mid-December.

Phillips said the special permit process was intended to recognize that in some cases energy companies have tight drilling windows because of wildlife constraints. And the process does come with risks — requiring the companies to be willing to pay to reclaim the land in the event that the full permit was denied or it became necessary to relocate the pad.

An attorney retained by Pirtlaw wrote to the commissioners on Dec. 4 to say her clients felt justified in building the road and conducting grading work because they were unwilling to disturb the eagle roosting, they were concerned that road-building in winter would be more harmful to the conserved ranch surface and, finally, that delays further jeopardized Pirtlaw’s collaborative relationship with Quicksilver because of time constraints built into Quicksilver's mineral lease with a third party.

Those concerns appear to have been rendered moot by Quicksilver’s acquisition of a county grading and excavation permit last month.

According to a document prepared by Quicksilver, fresh water for the drilling and fracking operation at the new Wolf Mountain Ranch well would be "obtained from the Yampa River through appropriate licensing, permitting, or sourcing through decreed water rights." The water for drilling would be trucked to the site, and the water for fracking would be pumped to the site by temporary above-ground piping. Quicksilver says the water would be contained in a closed-loop system maintained on site, and flowback water would be "hauled for disposal to (an) approved disposal facility."

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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