Routt County commissioners OK gas drilling near grouse lek | SteamboatToday.com

Routt County commissioners OK gas drilling near grouse lek

— The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved an oil and gas drilling permit Tuesday that has implications for how far local governments can go when balancing the region's energy needs with the goal of protecting critical wildlife habitat.

The proposed Sunterra well will be drilled about six miles northeast of Hayden and six-tenths of a mile from a lek, or courtship ground, used by the struggling Columbian sharp tailed grouse. The 3-acre well site is within the boundaries of a 1,757-acre conservation easement on the privately held Wolf Mountain Ranch. The easement was purchased in part with local property tax dollars and is held by The Nature Conservancy, which is in charge of enforcing the terms of the easement.

Commissioner Doug Monger said county regulations don't provide for treating conservation easements differently than other land in the county when it comes to approving oil and gas wells.

"At the present time, I don't believe our zoning regulations put conserved lands any higher than non-conserved lands," Monger said. "We have a letter from The Nature Conservancy's land conservation project director Jennifer Herrington suggesting we give this property additional protection. I don't believe our current land-use regulations allow us to do that."

Geoff Blakeslee, Yampa River project director for The Na­ture Con­servancy, said the plight of the sharp tailed grouse makes this conservation easement important. He said his research confirmed that the birds have lost 90 percent of their historic range, and that in Colorado they are confined almost entirely to Routt, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.

"These easements are special and we think they deserve special consideration," Blakeslee said. "It's our responsibility to protect their conservation values. We're willing to work with industry in this case to limit impacts."

The commissioners voted, 2-0, to approve a special-use permit for the well with the conditions that they pay for any damages to Routt County Road 70 and retain a third-party engineering firm to ensure the 1.3-mile access road to the 3-acre well pad doesn't threaten slope stability. Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush cast the second vote for approval. Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak was unable to attend the hearing after she was involved in a traffic accident.

The site is a sagebrush-covered mountainside overlooking Morgan Bottom on the north side of U.S. Highway 40.

The energy exploration company has agreed to abide by the Colorado Division of Wildlife's recommendation that it suspends drilling activities from March 15 to July 30 — the critical mating and rearing season for the birds. It also will attach mufflers to generators used on site.

"Our oil and gas regulations protect wildlife, water quality and provide for monitoring of neighbors' water," Mitsch Bush said. "I think the state has regulations that are reasonable for both sides. We at Routt County take it very seriously."

Chris Petry, a Sunterra landman, said that before March 15 his company will dismantle its drilling rig and remove it from the site until Aug. 1.

The county's task in analyzing the permit application was complicated by the fact that the subsurface mineral rights on that portion of Wolf Mountain Ranch are detached from the surface rights held by Bob Waltrip and his associates in Pirtlaw Partners.

Pirtlaw representative Brent Romick told the commissioners that the owners very much value the conservation qualities of the ranch and are satisfied that they have negotiated a surface agreement that will protect those qualities.

The same independent biologist who researched baseline data on the grouse population will continue to work, and be paid up to $3,000 a year by Sunterra, to monitor wildlife impacts in the area of the drilling rig, Romick said.

Sunterra is eager to accomplish some drilling before March 15 because its lease on the subsurface rights expires in May.

"If we can spud the well, we can preserve our lease," Petry's colleague Jordan Wells told the commissioners. "We haven't drilled this rock before, but we'll try to drill the initial stage —maybe 1,000 feet."

Sunterra must build its access road and pad before it can install its 150-foot-tall drilling rig this winter.

"We'll drill 24/7 for (a total of) 30 to 45 days," both prior to March 15 and after July 31, Wells said.

The target is the oil-bearing Niobrara shale between 5,766 and 7,000 feet beneath the surface. Wells said they hope to find oil at 6,045 feet, but the directional well, with a bore shaped like the heel and toe of a boot, will need 8,182 feet of pipe to reach that depth.

— To reach Tom Ross, call (970) 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com