El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday narrowly approved a basic set of regulations to govern oil and gas drilling in the county.
The Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a proposal that was significantly scaled down from what the county's planning commission approved earlier this month. The regulations govern transportation, emergency response, noxious weeds and, controversially, water quality issues related to drilling.
Commissioners Peggy Littleton and Darryl Glenn objected to the water quality regulations, arguing that the county was overstepping its authority because the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission also regulates drilling-related water issues.
"I think it would be irresponsible for us to open ourselves up to lawsuits," Littleton said.
The Attorney General's Office and oil and gas commission director Dave Neslin have expressed concern over the county's proposed rules, both in the version approved by the planning commission and a trimmed-down version the county's planning staff developed last week, arguing that the county can't regulate areas where the state has its rules in place.
However, commissoners Amy Lathen, Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey said that water quality was too important to leave up to the state.
"I really don't mind pushing the envelope when it comes to our water quality," Hisey said.
The water quality monitoring regulations adopted by the county are similar to what the oil and gas commission has agreed to in other counties, requiring wells to be monitored initially for a baseline measurement and then at one, three, and six-year intervals after drilling begins.
The commissioners scrapped most of the rules proposed by the planning commission, including measures that would have governed setbacks from structures and property lines, mitigation of visual impacts and noise and impacts to wildlife. The commissioners will instead try to address those issues by working with the oil and gas commission on an intergovernmental agreement.
Getting some kind of oil and gas regulations in place was vitally important for the county, since a moratorium on oil and gas permits expired at midnight Tuesday and the county had no other regulations in place. Houston-based Ultra Resources has applied to drill six wells in El Paso County, four in unincorporated parts of the county and two more in Banning Lewis Ranch, inside the Colorado Springs city limits. The city imposed its own moratorium and set up a task force to study oil and gas regulations. The task force plans to make a recommendation to City Council by early May.
All of this was decided in a meeting that stretched nearly nine hours Tuesday. Several dozen speakers weighed in on the proposed regulations on each side of the issue.
Jeff Cahill, who lives near the Corral Bluffs Open Space, said that the proposed drilling has already hurt his property values and made it difficult for he and his wife to sell their home.
"They say they're not going to impact us," he told the commission. "Well, they've already impacted me."
Steve Hicks, chairman of the El Paso County planning commission, urged the commission to pass more stringent regulations such as those approved by the planning commission.
"At times, there needs to be extra regulation where the state doesn't go far enough, and this is one of them," he said.
Other speakers praised the economic potential of expanded oil and gas development in the county.
Bob Stovall recounted his experience as an oil and gas lawyer and a city attorney in Farmington, N.M.
"Air is pretty clean there. Water is pretty clean there - and that's after 100 years of oil and gas," he said. "If oil and gas is around in this county, it could be good for us and it can be done well."
Tisha Conoly Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the county's new regulations were a good framework to build on.
"The El Paso County commissioners made significant progress today," she said. "The rules passed are 90 percent within the guidance provided by the Attorney General. There are still a couple of important issues to work through, but I am confident that the county is serious about finding common ground, and after seeing the progress made today, we will continue to work toward county regulations that are protective of the environment and within the scope of the county's jurisdiction."