The Pitkin County Attorney's Office has proposed adding a third attorney to its staff in response to the added demands posed by defending the Thompson Divide area outside of Carbondale from gas exploration and drilling activities.
County commissioners will consider the request Tuesday. The position is expected to require $120,000 from the county's general fund, plus $24,000 from its Health Rivers and Streams fund, a tax-supported initiative devoted to river health and protection.
The move comes in the wake of the first permit request submitted to the state for drilling activities within Pitkin County in Thompson Divide.
According to a memo to commissioners, the county has been leading the effort to defend Thompson Divide from extraction activities for the past three years, forcing the attorney's office to step down other activities and leaving other county departments without as much legal support as they'd previously had.
"The possibility of litigation and greater commitment of resources involving the Thompson Divide gas activities necessitates the addition of another attorney to the county office," the memo states.
The additional attorney will allow the county to pursue actions involving Thompson Divide, as well as improve service to other sectors of county government. The position will also allow the county to more aggressively pursue issues concerning rivers and streams, the memo states.
If the county contracts for outside legal counsel to help deal with oil and gas issues, the cost would likely be double the price of hiring a third attorney, according to John Ely, county attorney. The county has already sought some outside expertise on oil and gas matters, he said.
The attorney's office has employed two attorneys since 2002, when Chris Seldon joined the office as assistant county attorney.
The filing of a drilling permit application by Texas-based SG Interests with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission earlier this month, for a gas well within Pitkin County, precipitated the request for a third attorney, but the additional lawyer "could fill in a lot of gaps" when it comes to the county's legal needs, Ely said.
Whether litigation over gas exploration and extraction is inevitable is difficult to say, Ely added.
"Do I think it's going to go there? I don't know. Do we want to be ready for it? Yep," he said.
The proposed SG well site in Pitkin County is between North and Middle Thompson creeks, west of Highway 133, at an elevation of 9,727 feet. An application for a well in Garfield County was also filed. More are anticipated.
The 221,500-acre Thompson Divide area stretches from Sunlight Mountain Resort south to McClure Pass, and from the Crystal River west to Divide Creek, taking in eight watersheds and parts of Pitkin, Garfield, Mesa, Delta and Gunnison counties. Renewed interest in drilling there has generated controversy; conservation groups and local governments have pushed to prevent additional land in the area west of Carbondale from being leased and want to see existing leases expire.