Garfield County commissioners are considering adopting new oil and gas permitting requirements pertaining to the locating of oil and gas facilities following new state rules adopted last year.
The county regulations as currently drafted would apply in situations that would require companies under the new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rules to do an alternative location analysis, such as when they want to drill within 2,000 feet of homes or schools. The county requirements also would pertain in a few other circumstances, including when a company seeks a variance from COGCC noise or light standards.
The new COGCC rules were adopted as part of the agency’s efforts to implement Senate Bill 181, a 2019 measure that overhauled how oil and gas development is to be regulated in the state.
Among other things, that law required that COGCC change its mission to prioritize protecting public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife. It also expressly authorized local governments to regulate surface impacts of oil and gas development.
In Garfield County, which has been the center of drilling activity in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, county commissioners have long supported oil and gas development and the tax revenues and economic activity it generates. Historically, drilling and production are considered uses by right by the county and they have been solely regulated by the state rather than the county, with one notable exception being in the unincorporated Battlement Mesa planned unit development. Accessory uses such as pipelines and compressor stations require land use change permits in the county in some cases.
Matt Lepore, a former COGCC director working as a consultant for the county, told commissioners in a recent county work session that the COGCC has created opportunities for local governments to participate in the decision-making process with the state agency, particularly when it comes to siting of facilities. But he said that to do that, the local government needs its own permitting process for siting facilities.
According to a memo to commissioners from Sheryl Bower, the county’s community development director, the county regulatory effort is focused on developing draft regulations that let the county play a meaningful role in siting facilities, such as by targeting regulations where companies request a reduction in the COGCC’s base standards or otherwise trigger an alternative location analysis, or when they seek noise or lighting rule variances.
Lepore said that under an alternative location analysis, a company needs to show why its proposed site is a good site when compared to alternatives.
The COGCC has adopted a requirement for 2,000-foot setbacks between oil and gas pads and residences, schools and child care sites. But it’s not a hard-and-fast setback, and companies wanting to locate facilities closer than that must perform the alternative location analysis.
Such an analysis also is required in cases such as when a company wants to drill within 1,500 feet of certain outside activity areas, within floodplains, or within high-priority wildlife habitat in cases in which the company hasn’t obtained a Colorado Parks and Wildlife waiver.
Under the draft county rules, if a company wants to drill closer than the established setbacks in certain circumstances, such as those applying to homes, they would have to hold a neighborhood meeting during their application process with the county.
In cases where companies go through the alternative location analysis, the county could approve a location not consistent with COGCC base standards if it determines the location, with mitigation measures and along with any conditions of approval, is the best one and protects health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife. Such projects would be subject to the COGCC regulatory process as well.
Bower said in her memo that the regulatory effort is focused on avoiding duplicative regulation and permitting of facilities that meet COGCC standards, and providing an efficient and effective process, “while allowing the public to provide meaningful input on those facilities that may have the greatest potential to have impacts on neighboring land uses.”
Garfield Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said a streamlined process is important for the sake of oil and gas companies.
“We have operators right now, they’re just kind of getting by with the price of natural gas where it is,” he said.
He said he doubted companies will be seeking variances for light and noise locally, as they do a good job mitigating those impacts already.
But Kirby Wynn, the county’s oil and gas liaison, said there can be cases when a pad is well above or below nearby properties that it can be hard to block noise and light and a variance might be pursued.
The draft county rules also would apply on federal land, which Jankovsky suggested could be helpful in terms of the county playing a role when it comes to alternative location analysis for priority wildlife habitat, such as for greater sage-grouse.