GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Two of three Garfield County commissioners said on Tuesday that they felt the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's current regulations are sufficient, and do not need to be updated.
"I just feel these rules have all kinds of unintended consequences," said Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. "I'm OK with the rules the way they are."
Jankovsky's position was echoed by Commissioner John Martin, though Martin ultimately agreed to recommend certain changes to the COGCC as part of an ongoing rulemaking process under way in Denver.
In a unanimous vote, the three members of the board of county commissioners (BOCC) agreed to recommend several minor changes in the rules.
Commissioners on the COGCC board are considering whether to rewrite rules concerning setbacks, or the distances between gas wells and nearby homes and other occupied structures, and rules governing water quality testing to prevent groundwater contamination by drilling activities.
Among the recommendations from the BOCC is a rule to require gas drillers to hold consultations with landowners whose property line is between 500 and 1,000 feet of the planned well head.
"But without veto power," said Jankovsky, referring to industry fears that any landowner within 1,000 feet of a well head could stop the drilling under currently drafted rules before the COGCC. The county's proposal would not require drillers to agree to suggestions by adjacent landowners.
The commissioners also agreed to recommend that the existing mitigation rule for air pollution in Garfield and two other counties be left at 1,320 feet, rather than the reduction to 1,000 feet contained in the state's draft rules changes.
The BOCC heard from the oil and gas industry, the farming and ranching community and several individual citizens prior to making a decision about the county's formal position about proposed changes to rules governing setbacks and water monitoring.
Most of the discussion dealt with the proposed new setback regulations, with very little devoted to the water monitoring proposals.
Industry urges Garfield rules for statewide use
David Ludlam, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association in Grand Junction, said setback rules governing Garfield County should be broadened to cover the entire state.
"I think that Garfield County has really been a model," he said, urging the BOCC to endorse an industry-backed proposal to put the entire state under a particular set of setback rules that currently apply only to Garfield, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties.
The regulations are grouped in a section known as the 805-b-2 Rule, and can be found on the COGCC website (http://cogcc.state.co.us).
Among other provisions, one rule within the 805-b-2 section calls for the installation of special pollution control devices for facilities emitting more than five tons per year of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, if the facility is within a quarter mile (1,320 feet) of an occupied structure.
The VOC list includes methane and other hydrocarbons commonly found with natural gas.
Ludlam cautioned the BOCC members against supporting rules changes that might result in "unintended consequences" for the state or the industry.
"Sometimes we get ahead of ourselves in creating new legislation," Ludlam remarked, questioning the scientific justification for increasing setback requirements from their current distance of between 150 feet and 350 feet, to 1,000 feet or more.
"There's a certain arbitrariness to it," he said, adding that the state's current set of oil and gas regulations, approved in 2008, are sufficiently rigorous to oversee the industry.
Ludlam also criticized the proposed water monitoring requirements as too costly for small drillers.
Given the additional costs inherent in more stringent monitoring, next to what he described as doubtful benefits, Ludlam noted that Colorado is "already at a cost disadvantage" compared to other parts of the U.S. where drilling is cheaper.
Citizen's group calls for 1,000-foot setback
Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance said existing setback requirements are inadequate.
She pointed out that many people in western Garfield County have reported serious health problems, which they associate with nearby gas drilling rigs, tank farms and other facilities.
Some residents have died, while others have been forced to move away, she said.
"In order to protect human health, the setbacks ... must be greater than the current 150 or 350 feet," she said.
Robinson asked the BOCC to support the proposed 1,000-foot setback.
With the increased use of horizontal drilling, which can reach a gas pocket 2,000 feet or more from a well pad, she said, such a setback should not be a problem for the industry.
To support her argument, she cited odor complaints received at the county's oil and gas liaison's office during the 2008 rulemaking process and submitted to the COGCC.
More than half the odor complaints, she said, were from wells located less than 1,000 feet from the person's home. Beyond the 1,000-foot mark, she said, "complaints dropped off significantly."
Existing regulations, she emphasized, are "not adequate to protect residents."
Farmers, ranchers support existing setbacks
Ludlam's position essentially was backed up by Richard Connell, a Grand Junction representative of the Colorado Farm Bureau, and Frank Daley of Divide Creek, speaking for the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.
"We feel that each well placement should be decided ... based on a consultation" between the landowner and the drilling company, said Daley.
If setbacks were increased to 1,000 feet without exception, he continued, on his property "there would be no place left where we could build a house," and drilling rigs would be "right in the middle of irrigated hay fields."
Connell (pronounced "con-elle"), opened his remarks by noting that his organization has "worked intimately with the oil and gas industry ... to maintain a good balance between all sectors" of the state's economy.
He said "one size does not fit all" with regard to oil and gas regulations.
The Farm Bureau is "highly supportive of maintaining the regulations that were approved in the 2008 discussions," he said, rather than enacting modifications.
The proposed changes, he said, would negatively affect irrigation practices, force construction of more roads over productive agricultural lands, and place additional limits on how much land a farmer or rancher can make use of.
"Agricultural producers become the injured party with increased setbacks," he said.
Garfield County oil and gas liaison Kirby Wynn said he and county attorney Frank Hutfless will write up a letter containing the commissioners' recommendations, which must be sent to the COGCC no later than Nov. 30.