Dave Gardner wore a green gas mask in front of City Hall Tuesday, hoping to encourage City Council members to vote against an ordinance that allows drilling for oil and natural gas within the city.
Gardner was among more than 30 people who showed up to present their views on the ordinance. More than half of the attendees spoke against it, but their efforts failed.
After more than six hours, council members voted 6-3 to approve a set of rules that would allow Ultra Resources, Hilcorp Energy Co. and other energy companies to drill exploratory and other wells within city limits. Council members Tim Leigh, Angela Dougan, Merv Bennett, Brandy Williams, Lisa Czelatdko, and Bernie Herpin voted in favor of the ordinance. Council members Jan Martin, Val Snider and Scott Hente voted against it. The ordinance must be voted on again at the council’s Dec. 11 meeting.
The ordinance covers the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique sometimes used by petroleum companies when exploring and extracting oil and natural gas. Fracking uses water mixed with chemicals to crack rocks below the earth’s surface. The cracks create pathways from which oil and natural gas can be extracted.
The technique could be used by Ultra Resources in the former Banning-Lewis Ranch area. Last year, Ultra purchased 18,500 acres of the ranch that was in bankruptcy. The state has issued two permits to Ultra for exploratory drilling in that area.
But city codes prohibited drilling within the city before the ordinance’s passage, except in some agricultural instances, City Attorney Chris Melcher said during the council meeting. Had the city not approved the ordinance, Ultra Resources and the state might have sued the city, as they did in Longmont, Melcher said.
Most speakers at Tuesday’s meeting opposed the ordinance, warning about possible future water and air pollution. But one resident said people should not be afraid of fracking in the Banning-Lewis area because the drilling would occur thousands of feet below the aquifers.
“The drilling would take place at 10,000 feet,” he said.
The new law creates several reporting and drilling requirements within the city. One is that the council must approve any drilling within 1,000 feet or less of a densely populated area. But there was nothing in the ordinance about when or how often petroleum companies must test wells and ground water after drilling starts, which made Councilwoman Brandy Williams “uncomfortable.”
“I don’t like the water quality sampling requirements,” she said. “I don’t think it is frequent enough.”
The state set water-testing regulations, however, for the two permits it issued to Ultra for its Banning-Lewis wells, said Kyle Campbell, interim director of planning for the city. Those requirements force Ultra to test the surrounding water before drilling begins then one, three and six years after, Campbell said. Those requirements, however, were exclusive to those two permits.
Before the vote, Councilman Herpin said there is no way to eliminate risk in the world, only reduce it.
“All we can do is talk about the risk and try to mitigate it,” he said.
Council chairman Hente said he felt voting for the ordinance reduces the city’s ability to determine which companies can drill where.
“I want the oil and gas companies to come here when we can set our own home use authority and our own rules,” he said.
Houston-based Ultra Resources has three exploratory wells in El Paso County, east of the city. Hilcorp Energy, also Houston based, has started on two wells in El Paso County.