OMG! The Roughnecks are coming!


Yikes! The Roughnecks are coming!

The first sighting occurred in February, when a band of them known as Crestone Peak Resources filed a Comprehensive Drilling Plan (CDP) application with the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC to its friends) for a drilling campaign in Boulder County.

The plan called for drilling 216 wells on a 12 square-mile parcel of land east of U.S. 287 between Quail and Oxford roads extending to the Boulder-Weld County line, most of which is Boulder County-owned open space.

A miasma of icy dread gripped the County Courthouse. Ashen-faced, the County Commissioners announced that they would “monitor the situation closely.”

Then, on Sept. 11, word of a second Roughneck sighting at COGCC reached Boulder County — a band called the “8 North LLC, a Subsidiary of Extraction Oil and Gas, LLC.” It applied for a “drilling and spacing unit order” on two parcels, 1,280 acres along the Boulder-Weld County Line between Arapahoe and Baseline Roads, and 2,720 acres along the Boulder-Weld line between Quail and Oxford Roads. (The latter parcel appears to overlay the eastern part of the land in Crestone Peak Resources CDP application, suggesting the two Roughneck bands are cooperating.)

Yikes squared.

This new proposal prompted the Commissioners to raise the threat level from “Closely Monitoring” to “Chicken Little-ing.”

They swiftly issued a statement averring that they 1) were “gravely concerned,” 2) had “reached out” to the mayors, councils and staff of Lafayette, Longmont and Erie, 3) were keeping “our website up to date” regarding oily and gassy stuff, and 4) would oppose the drilling and spacing applications when they come up for a hearing before the COGCC, and urged concerned residents to do the same.

Wow. Grave concern… reaching out… up-dating the county website… opposing the applications at the hearing… this is pretty heady stuff. It’s practically inevitable that someone is going to fire off a sharply worded note or issue an angry press release, and then who knows where it will all end. But hey, extreme situations call for extreme measures.

Chicken Little mode is an apt metaphor for what’s going on here. That’s because what’s happening is the chickens are coming home to roost.

In 2015, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that serial moratoriums on oil and gas drilling like the ones the Commissioners imposed in the County were illegal, but the Commissioners did buy the county five years to prepare for the coming of the Roughnecks.

Which it wasted.

The only substantive thing they did was rewrite the County’s oil and gas regulations, whose reach is sharply limited by state law.

Under Colorado law, almost all of the power to regulate oil and gas production — and fracking — rests with the state. A county government’s regulatory say is pretty minimal.

The local anti-frackers have been shrilly demanding that the Commissioners ban oil and gas production in the County. Well, they can’t. The demand is dishonest and made in bad faith and the anti-frackers know it.

But that doesn’t mean the Commissioners were without options.

Here are a few of the things the Commissioners could have done during the five wasted years:

1) The Commissioners could have used existing County open space revenues to buy mineral rights near the subdivision and natural areas most likely to be most impacted by drilling. Or they could have used the revenues to incentivize oil companies to locate well pads further away from those areas.

2) The Commissioners could have proposed an “underground open space program” modeled along the lines of the existing open space program and asked voters to approve a new tax to pay for it. That would have allowed the County to have substantially reduced the impact of new oil and gas development before it began in earnest. (A tax vote would also reveal just how deep anti-fracking sentiment runs in the County.)

3) Boulder County already owns the mineral rights under a substantial amount of its open space. Oil companies currently produce oil from wells on existing leases that they hold on this land and the County receives royalties on the production. (The County didn’t issue the leases; it inherited them when it bought the land.) The Commissioners could have used the royalties from these leases to buy mineral rights under land on which it doesn’t want to see drilling. And those revenues could have been several times larger than they actually were if the County hadn’t blocked companies from drilling new horizontal wells on their existing leases.

4) The Commissioners could have taken the next step and cut some deals with the oil companies granting new leases on county open space in return for a much greater say in where and how production takes place.

5) The Commissioners could have come up with some creative proposals for curbing one of the most disliked impacts of oil production, the flaring of natural gas. They could have put some public dollars toward installing gathering lines that would allow the gas to be used for a public purpose instead of flared, like heating CU’s new hospital on East County Line Road, maybe, or alternatively, toward installing fuel cells on the drilling pads to turn the waste gas into electricity.

In other words, there is a lot the Commissioners could have done, and still could do, to reduce the impact of oil and gas production on both the environment and those living near it, if they had the wit and the will to do it. Which, self-evidently, they don’t.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.

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