The Gunnison County Commissioners made a good decision Tuesday. As they themselves pointed out, it wasn’t perfect, but I’ll say it was pretty good when the commissioners voted unanimously to support amended oil and gas rules governing the development of the resource. The legislative process worked and their decision should help protect the broad resources of this valley for decades.
Commissioners Hap Channell, Paula Swenson and Phil Chamberland approved a number of amendments and additions to the current county regulations. Their decision made today’s situation better than yesterday and keeps us a step ahead for the inevitable future when those in the Ohio Creek Valley and near Kebler Pass will be dealing with potential drilling pads and their impacts.
Responding to a gas industry request two and a half years ago, the county began revising its current regulations. The more they touched them, the more they got sticky. So they went all in. The county has spent a lot of time and even more money to upgrade the current rules and regulations. What they ended up with was a document that bores in on the local concerns of such industrial activity. The amended regs are obviously concerned with helping to keep our air fresh and our water clean. The county has been working with the state in an attempt to avoid being repetitive with Colorado regulations.
Now not everyone thinks it is a great document. At the public hearing Tuesday afternoon, the enviros frequently voiced that setbacks from water bodies don’t go far enough at 150 feet. Several asked that air quality be monitored and the number of pads be limited since horizontal drilling allowed gas to be extracted from quite a distance.
On the industry side, Brad Robinson, president of Gunnison Energy Corporation, essentially said the regulations would probably be a pain but are “reasonable” and he thought they should be approved so the company could move on. The real pain, he said, would be for the county to continue hashing out regulations for another two years.
Another industry guy, Eric Sanford, the lands manager for gas development company SG Interests, thinks the new rules put too much burden on gas companies and usurp the state regulations. He has consistently said that the Gunnison regulations will upset the state to the point that it might sue the county. He pointed out correctly that Governor Hickenlooper has stated frequently he doesn’t want companies to have to deal with 64 sets of regulations in all 64 Colorado counties. Sanford has said publicly the county can expect litigation from gas companies to result from the passage of the amended regulations.
You know, he might be right. It’s America, after all, and anyone can sue anybody for anything. So bring it. Stop the threat of a lawsuit and either deal with the new regs or go to that next step so the issue can be settled in court.
But the facts are that the district court ruled less than a year ago that the county has a right to regulate such land use activities. The county commissioners each pointed out they have worked in concert with the state during this two-and-a-half-year process and they feel like they have the state’s blessing. The county took great pains to hold an open and thorough process that included all sides of the issue. They came to a compromise that, as everyone acknowledged, made no one perfectly happy. The commissioners incorporated suggestions from the industry as well as from environmental organizations on how better to craft the document. The president of an affected energy company called the regulations “reasonable.”
At the very end of the very loooooong process, the Republican county commissioner (Phil Chamberland) patted the High Country Citizens Alliance on the back. And the Democrat (Paula Swenson) gave an ‘atta boy’ to the gas industry expert. The third commissioner (chairman Hap Channell) expressed real concerns about the setback issue but he felt it was important to have a unified front. And the process ultimately ended with a unanimous vote by the three commissioners.
It was a good decision. The gas isn’t going away and it will be coveted and it will take extraction to get it out of the ground. That’s the reality and it’s not a pristine process. There are pools of natural gas that lie closer to Crested Butte and Gunnison than the current wells in the North Fork Valley.
This was a good decision for the future of the county. If something is horribly wrong, the commissioners admitted the document is “living” and could be amended again to correct any overreach. The commission chairman pointed out that the county has never denied a permit for a gas well. The overriding concern was to put safeguards in place to make sure those growing number of wells don’t screw up the rest of the resources we have in this county. Fair enough. I like natural gas heating my house but I like being able to drink clean water, eat fresh fruit and breathe clean air just as much. This decision reflected the community: Go ahead and extract the gas but do it with care.
And if Mr. Sanford and SG Interests want to fight that fight, bring it…because you’ll likely find yourselves on the wrong side of history if you truly care about being a good neighbor and extracting the gas “responsibly.”