Groups say drilling rules do not do enough to protect surface owners

A movement that will eventually propose changes to oil and natural gas drilling regulations is slowly making its way to Northwest Colorado.

Community forums have been held in Mesa, Delta, San Juan, Las Animas and Garfield counties to gauge public interest in attaining more rights for surface owners.

"We're trying to come up with rules and regulations that will satisfy surface owners," said Mary Ellen Denomy of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, cosponsor of the meetings.

Western Colorado Congress, an environmental group, also sponsored the meetings.

Proposed changes will give landowners and counties more input in the regulations.

As more and more natural gas and oil wells are drilled, more surface owners are affected by their proximity. Complaints range from increased traffic to contaminated groundwater to dust issues.

"We've got an awful long list of complaints people have had with the industry, but our main intention was coming up with a solution," Denomy said. "We did come up with a lot of things the rules lack. They're just not in favor of surface owners."

Conflicts between landowners and companies have grown as the number of wells has increased in parts of the state. Production of natural gas and methane gas extracted from coal beds is booming in Western Colorado.

Suggested changes include requiring natural gas companies to submit annual master plans to county commissioners and increasing the time people have to respond when energy companies post an intent to drill from 30 days to 90 days. The proposals also require companies to monitor water before, during and after natural gas wells are drilled.

The first step, Denomy said, is making sure existing rules are enforced. The second is equalizing the battle between split estates.

A split estate is one where one person owns the surface rights and another owns the mineral rights. The Supreme Court upheld the notion that both rights were equal and that one doesn't supersede the other, but that ruling is not reflected in Colorado's drilling regulations, Denomy said.

Currently there is no requirement that an agreement between the surface owner and drilling company be in place before drilling takes place, though it is recommended.

"They just waltz in and do what they see fit and that's not always in correlation with what the landowner wants," she said.

Counties that have approved stricter restrictions than the state have run into legal trouble. The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled last summer that communities have a right to regulate oil and gas wells, but cannot use that power to block permits issued by the state.

"Counties have tried to flex their muscles and put some rules and regulations in place and they haven't been successful," Denomy said. "We just want some relief from the abuse of the land."

This is not an attempt to stop drilling, she said.

"There are some companies out there who do the right thing, but not a lot," she said. "They need to be all doing it so we can live with them. This is not a ploy of any kind to stop drilling. It's important."

Denomy said her group realizes how critical natural resources are to county economies and have no intent to disrupt that.

Denomy said the group plans to hold meetings across the state to get input on proposed rule changes. Then they'll take the proposed changes to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

"It's too soon right now," Denomy said. "We need to address all the problems. I'm not sure we'll get more than one shot at a proposed rule change."

To make changes, the group needs to submit an application that includes changes, additions or deletions, said Tricia Beaver, hearings manager for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

A hearing can be set from 20 days to 6 months after the application is submitted.

"Typically when we do a rule-making hearing, it's a couple of months out to comply with Secretary of State requirements," Beaver said.

The more controversial the proposed changes are, the more time before a hearing is set in order

to get all interested parties to the table.

"If it is controversial, we prefer formal discussions and tweaking of the rule so everyone agrees if at

all possible," she said.

The seven-member commission that makes the final decision meets every five weeks, so it could be some time before a final decision is made.

The current regulations were made without input from citizens and this group wants to change that.

"Maybe we can come up with a compromise, but we need to do it on our own and not invite industry to the table yet," Denomy said. "For some reason citizens think about industry needs and issues, but I don't think that works the other way around."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or by e-mail at ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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