“No one will leave happy…”
With a unanimous vote, the Gunnison County Commissioners adopted upgraded regulations to the current rules governing oil and gas development in the county. The new additions make the oversight of the county more stringent than previous regulations. Critics say the new document steps on the toes of federal and state regulations, while proponents of the document say it doesn’t go far enough in areas such as setbacks from bodies of water.
After two and a half years of deliberation, the finalé for the new amendments to the county rules ended with two hours of public comments and commissioner observations, and a vote on Tuesday afternoon.
“Frankly, I think I can disagree with both sides of this issue to some extent,” said Commissioner Phil Chamberland. “The bottom line is that we have had such regulations since 2002. I think this process has been time and money well spent. I think it is important to the economy of Gunnison County to have good oil and gas extraction. I believe the county has a role in regulating that extraction. This is a pragmatic approach. In my mind, I feel comfortable the industry can pursue extraction with these regulations.”
Commissioner Paula Swenson concurred. “We have had oil and gas regulations for years,” she said. “In fact, Perry Anderson was on the commissioner board when they were passed. We certainly have the right to regulate this at the local level. We’ve been working well with the state on this issue. We understand that we must regulate responsibly and work with state regulations. Both sides of the issue won’t be totally pleased with this but these regulations are reasonable. Our goal is to protect the health, welfare and safety of the citizens of Gunnison County.”
“A gas well permit in Gunnison County has never been denied,” pointed out Commissioner Hap Channell. “We are revising the regulations that have been on the books and we’ve never stopped gas development in the county. We’ve asked for mitigation but never has there been a denial. This is a living document that can and will be amended in the future. We’ve done a thorough job here.”
Channell echoed concerns from the public that the 150-foot setback in the proposed amendments wasn’t sufficient. But he pointed out that heavy mitigation within the buffer zones were part of the document. The inner buffer, where all industry activity is banned with the exception of a possible road or pipeline, extends to 150 feet.
A second buffer stretches from the 150-foot mark to 500-feet and contains heavy mitigation measures (see the Crested Butte News website for all the specifics). Berms and landscaping to prevent spills from heading toward a water source are part of those mitigation requirements. Storage ponds aren’t allowed within 500 feet of a water body. “In the buffer zones there is no longer a ‘technical infeasibility waiver’ allowed,” Channell said. “In the past the gas company could argue and present evidence that the buffer couldn’t be accomplished. In the new regulations, the buffers are absolute and I like that it has been tightened up.”
The nearly 80 members of the public at Tuesday’s hearing reiterated points that had been made in previous public hearing sessions. Some wore t-shirts stating, “Jobs for Gunnison County.” Many sported green tags stating, “I support responsible oil and gas development.” Channell also presented a 17-page list of names of people who had sent in comment letters concerning the issue.
“Given that horizontal drilling can go quite far—I’ve read as far as six miles—then perhaps just two drilling pad sites could cover the North Fork,” suggested Butch Clark. “The sites could be ideally suited for their purpose.”
“We have a critical need for economic diversity in Gunnison County,” said Stu Ferguson. “Tourism is vulnerable to many factors. You have an opportunity to provide economic growth for the county and oil and gas will someday surpass the revenues currently generated by the coal mines.”
Mark Mitchell said he and his family had to leave the county and their construction business because of too much regulation. “Be careful about imposing more regulation,” said the current Montrose resident. “The climate here already feels anti-business.”
“I’ve been to I think 27 of these meetings,” said Eric Sanford of gas development company SG Interests. “What do these regulations gain the county? Don’t do regulation for regulation sake. Much of these regulations duplicate the state but in different ways. The effect is that companies don’t know what to expect. I think you are trying to regulate oil and gas development beyond your jurisdiction and that will end up in litigation either by companies like us or by the state.”
Several North Fork ranchers came to protest the proposed regulations, saying they needed the money that the gas wells provided. “Income is important,” stated Gary Volk. “This can help keep the next generation on the ranch.”
Former county commissioner Perry Anderson questioned whether the county was spending too much money developing the new regulations and countered Clark’s suggestion. “I have experience in oil drilling and directional drilling can be done, but the conditions have to be appropriate,” Anderson said. “It’s not automatic. As far as the setback suggestion, beyond a certain point, it’s more about politics and a way to try to impede oil and gas exploration in the county.”
Gunnison Energy Corporation president Brad Robinson said most people in the room support reasonable oil and gas regulations. “As the rules stand today they are in an acceptable place,” he said. “We think the regulations being proposed are reasonable. Rather than continue the pain of another two years of debate, I’d suggest the commissioners pass these regulations.”
Crested Butte’s Larry Mosher emphasized the need for a stringent setback requirement. “We have a resource so special in our water,” he said. “Spills definitely take place and often go beyond 150 feet, so that distance is almost like having no setback at all. I would urge a 300-foot setback at least. Even the best drillers have problems sometimes and with horizontal drilling, they can get what they want without being close to water.”
“No one wants dirty air or dirty water, but don’t be hypocrites,” said Alex Laird. “Everyone is dependent on oil and gas. If not, don’t get back in your car after the meeting. And oil and gas depends on extraction.”
“The Piceance Basin extends beyond Kebler and Ohio Passes,” reminded Rich Karas. “These regulations will impact more than the North Fork. I don’t believe the regulations regulate out the industry but it could impact the cost of the resource.”
Paonia’s Holy Terror Farm owner Alison Gannett brought the commissioners fresh tomatoes and grapes she had picked earlier that day. “I irrigated these yesterday,” she said. “Conceivably, a spill could take place that I wouldn’t know about that would contaminate the water and impact the fruits and vegetables. That is scary.”
Sara Sotter, also of Paonia, reminded the commissioners that much of the state’s fresh produce is grown in the valley near the potential gas wells. “Your responsibility is to human health,” she said. “The water needs protecting.”
Ty Gillespie spoke for the wineries in the North Fork, saying, “Clean, unpolluted water is critical to our livelihood.”
Warren Wilcox asked the commissioners to keep property rights in mind with any new regulation.
High Country Citizens Alliance public lands director Matt Reed said he felt the regulations were “for the most part a significant improvement over the current situation. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg with oil and gas development. It will creep over the passes to Kebler and Ohio Pass. We ask that you extend the buffer zone beyond 150 feet.”
“I really like hearing these good conservative, independent westerners suggest we send our regulatory control to Washington and Denver,” Al Vogul said sarcastically. “We live here. This is us. I drink the water and eat the fruit. The Forest Service has rules keeping campgrounds farther than 150 feet away from streams. Hunters know it’s not a good idea to leave human waste within 150 feet of a stream. The setback should logically be 500 feet.”
“Jobs for Gunnison County! That’s what we need,” said Kevin McGruther referencing the t-shirts worn by some in the crowd. “The Crested Butte Farmers Market is a job creator. Do you mind if I smoke? Because not too long ago cigarettes were considered healthy and this has a similar feel.”
Former commissioner Rikki Santarelli said, “The county’s overregulation is hurting the local economy and local families.”
“This is an industry where one accident can negatively impact hundreds if not thousands of people,” countered Mark Schwiesow. “It’s like the auto industry. They have implemented safety measures that save lives but add to the cost of a vehicle. I think we all agree that cost is appropriate. We’ll accept the added cost of the product for added safety. Plus it is a small community movement that can lead the way for larger governments.”
In the end, the commissioners agreed that more, not less, oil and gas operations were likely for the county. “We need to look at the longer and broader implementation. It will occur,” stated Chamberland. “There’s no way that everyone will be happy with what comes out of here. I’m comfortable with the setback and with the proposed regulations.”
So were the other two commissioners, despite some concern voiced by Channell about needing a greater setback from water bodies.
“Is it perfect?” asked Swenson. “No. But it’s a pretty good set of regulations that we can move forward with.”
And they did. Unanimously.