Ursa well pad 700 feet from Grand Valley High offers 1st test of state rule
The proposal of a well pad within 700 feet of Grand Valley High School in Parachute recently led, in part, to Garfield County’s decision to consult in the siting process under new state rules established earlier this year.
The decision, to which county commissioners unanimously agreed on June 27, makes Garfield County the first, and at this point the only, local government to officially commit to participating in the consultation process approved by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in January.
The events here could provide some insight to regulators, local governments and operators, regarding an untested process intended to open dialogue between the parties earlier in the planning stages.
“All in all, we think this rule is (a) strong step in bringing local governments further into the process and we’ll welcome the chance to learn from these initial cases,” Todd Hartman, communications director for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said in an email.
Ursa Resources, which also is seeking approval from the state for location permits regarding two pads within the Battlement Mesa residential area, notified the county on June 13 of its intent to construct a large urban mitigation area (LUMA) facility near Parachute.
Under the new rules — which originated from an oil and gas task force convened by the Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014 in a compromise that kept several initiatives off the ballot — operators are required to notify local governments and offer them an opportunity to consult on proposed LUMA facilities at least 90 days prior to submitting siting forms with COGCC.
If a government with land use authority accepts the consultation offer, the operator is required to “consult in good faith” on siting and best management practices for the proposed facility.
The notification from Ursa is the first in Garfield County, which trails only Weld County in terms of the number of drilling permits on an annual basis since 2010, according to data from the COGCC.
In unincorporated Garfield County, oil and gas development is a use by right, and it does not trigger a local permitting process, Kirby Wynn, Garfield County oil and gas liaison, reminded commissioners at the late June meeting.
As defined by the state, an urban mitigation area is defined as an oil and gas facility with at least 22 building units or one high occupancy building, such as a school, within 1,000 feet. The definition also extends to facilities when 11 building units fall within any semi-circle of the 1,000-foot radius.
While Ursa’s proposal is in an area that is far from being considered urban, Wynn said the edge of the proposed pad is about 645 feet from Grand Valley High, which triggered the LUMA notification and offer for consultation.
In noting that this was the first time he was aware of any such facility in the county being this close to a school, Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he would like to consult with Ursa to ensure the school district, Garfield County 16, has a seat at the table.
Garfield 16 Superintendent Ken Haptonstall is currently on vacation. He did not respond to a request for comments on the proposal.
Commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson also commented on the desire to ensure communication channels remain open throughout the process. As Martin noted, residents in the area want assurance that “we’re not abandoned. … We hope that our government is looking into this issue, and Ursa is really living up to what they say they will do. I don’t see a problem with that. I would accept that.”
Ursa has a track record of communicating with community members and stakeholders, Martin said. Nonetheless, the county should be included in the discussions and “take an active role in protecting both Ursa and our citizens.”
How that process will work, though, is unclear.
County staff noted the rule is intentionally broad concerning the actual consultation process.
A subsection of the rule states that it “does not prescribe any particular form of consultation or local land use planning or approval process.”
The open-ended approach to the consultation process is a good thing, said Matt Sura, an attorney representing several citizen groups advocating against Ursa’s proposals in the Battlement Mesa Planned Unit Development.
“It will be interesting to see how Garfield County utilizes this process,” said Sura, who also served on the governor’s oil and gas task force. “And I think for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the rules are vague to allow for that type of flexibility to have each local government choose how that consultation will work in that jurisdiction. … So it’s really going to be Garfield County driving that bus, rather than the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission … as it should.”
Ultimately, commissioners unanimously agreed to consult with Ursa as a sort of convenor; allowing the county to serve as a conduit for stakeholders in the area, including Grand Valley High School.
Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa, said the company welcomes input from the county. Much like for other parties involved, this will be a learning process for Ursa as well.
“Really we’re going to be learning just as [the county is] through the system,” Simpson said. “We’ll work through it, and we’ll try and do what the rules intended to cover. … It will be a learning process for us both, I’m sure, but again I think it’s valuable to have [the county] involved.”
For those reasons, some will watch with interest as the process unfolds.
“I think the more that folks are allowed to sit down and participate in the planning process, the higher the likelihood that the project goes forward in a way that minimizes … impacts,” said Bernie Buescher, former Colorado secretary of state and a member of the governor’s oil and gas task force
Buescher, who played a central role in drafting the recommendation that served as the starting point for the COGCC rule, said it will be interesting to see how the consultation process with the county and Ursa unfolds.
O&G near schools
Elsewhere in the state, proposed oil and gas developments near schools have been a source of controversy.
Weld County residents last week protested an oil and gas proposal about 1,300 feet from a school building, the Greeley Tribune reported. Among the concerns voiced by those opposed to the proposal, which Weld County commissioners unanimously approved, were potential health impacts to schoolchildren.
Sura, noting that the Ursa proposal is much closer to a school than the one in Weld County, shared similar concerns regarding the site in Garfield County.
“I have two kids that are going to school, and I would not want an oil and gas facility within 1,000 feet of their school, because it’s a health and safety concern,” he said
Simpson refrained from predicting what the response from residents in the broader Parachute-Battlement Mesa area might be, but he said there will be a good deal of discussion.
“We’re very cognizant of the school and safety,” he said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make it a good operation, with as little impact as possible.”
Simpson pointed to the project’s use of a temporary completions facility approximately 3,000 feet west of the actual well pad — well outside the 1,000 feet urban mitigation area boundary — as one example of preliminary efforts to mitigate impacts.
A document, which Ursa provided to the county, stating the rationale for the location concluded other options were unfeasible after initial discussion with residents, the community, the high school and the town of Parachute.
The document does state that the scheduling of drilling and completions will be done to minimize concerns when school is in session.
Simpson did not have a time frame for the proposal going forward.
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