Garfield County on Tuesday accepted a proposed settlement from Antero Resources, and agreed to withdraw its formal interventions in Antero's plans for intensified gas drilling on two 640-acre parcels in the Silt Mesa area.
As part of the settlement, Antero has pledged to withdraw its application for "10-acre spacing" drilling authorization. For now, the company will stick with the density of one well per 40 acres, which is essentially the default density for the entire state.
"The primary reason the [county] intervened in the first place was the plans for increased well density," noted assistant county attorney Cassie Coleman. "That's off the table, for now."
The company also agreed to observe a 500-foot setback from all "occupied structures" and, among other provisions, to continue holding talks with Silt Mesa residents for the next 18 months "concerning possible large-scale oil and gas development in the Silt Mesa area."
Antero, which has drilled four exploratory wells on Silt Mesa, plans to drill one more before the end of the year, according to its Rifle representative, Jon Black.
The company last year applied to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for 10-acre spacing in two specified, 640-acre parcels.
The 10-acre spacing, if granted, would give Antero the ability to drill one well every 10 acres, although the wells would be "down-hole" operations. Using directional drilling, Antero could reach several wells from a single well pad on the surface.
After Antero sought the increased well density, Silt Mesa residents immediately rose up in protest. Late last year the Garfield County commissioners agreed to formally intervene in Antero's application, to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of residents was not compromised by the drilling activities.
Residents worried that the high-density drilling in their neighborhood might increase the likelihood of contamination of local groundwater supplies, as well as air pollution.
Some residents already have reported falling ill for reasons that have not been fully explained, and some have moved out of the neighborhood to escape the drilling and its potential impacts.
Antero, for its part, maintains that there is no evidence that their activities have contaminated ground water aquifers or caused those living nearby to become ill.
In the settlement accepted on Tuesday, the company agreed to amend its application to the COGCC to request that the state agency approve four well pads in each 640-acre parcel, with up to 16 wells to be drilled from each of the four pads.
That, according to county officials, translates to one "down-hole" gas well per 40 acres.
Antero officials have said publicly that the company expects to be evaluating the data from its exploratory wells over the course of the next year or more, and would not commence intensified drilling operations before completing that evaluation.
"That will allow us options in the near term," Black said after the meeting, explaining that Antero will be able to learn more about the natural gas reserves underlying Silt Mesa before it makes any decisions about future operations in the area.
The settlement approved Tuesday does not prohibit Antero from applying again for 10-acre spacing, nor does it prevent the county from launching a new set of interventions if the company's proposal raises concerns among the local populace.
There were some objections to the county acting on the settlement proposal on Tuesday. Some Silt Mesa residents and their supporters felt there was inadequate notice to allow residents to be present at the meeting. The meeting was announced Monday afternoon, and began at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Coleman told county commissioners that she received several voice mail messages and e-mails from people "concerned that they're not able to be here."
There were three people from Silt Mesa at the meeting, including Sandy Picard representing the Rifle/Silt Mesa/Peach Valley/New Castle [RSPN] organization, and neighbors John Bellio and Brian Elsperman. All three indicated that, while not entirely happy with the settlement, they understood the county's interest in accepting it.
"We totally understand your position," said Picard, "because the intervention was based on the 10-acre [application]." But she added that not all the community's concerns have been addressed by the settlement.
Commissioner Mike Samson, calling the settlement "a delicate matter," worried that critics see the settlement as "a back-room deal." He said of the company's efforts to work with their neighbors, "They've made some big concessions."
But Commissioner Tom Jankovsky dismissed Samson's concerns about public perceptions, declaring, "No back-room deal was cut."
Jankovsky also said, "From a business standpoint, there are some reasons to move forward" with the settlement.
He said legal depositions for the intervention proceedings were due to begin this week, involving the county's list of witnesses to appear at the settlement hearing in April.
"We gave them 24 hours' notice," he added, referring to the citizenry.
The final citizen to speak at the meeting, Elsperman, implored the commissioners, "I just hope if the density issue comes up again in the future, that you will stand up for the people of Silt Mesa."