The rules aim to strike a balance between the wishes of industry and environmentalists.

The draft chapter 90 must be submitted to the La Plata County Planning Commission and county commissioners for final approval. (File of the Durango Herald)

La Plata County commissioners indicated approval of a draft setbacks section of proposed chapter 90 of the land use code, which regulates the oil and gas industry. Commissioners directed staff Tuesday to move forward with minor revisions to the chapter.

If approved, the code would adopt the state’s rules regarding mandatory distances between natural gas wells and different types of infrastructure. However, the proposed standards are also more restrictive than those adopted by the State in certain circumstances.

In four cases, the county would require a setback greater than those listed in rules developed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The County of La Plata facing the setbacks of the COGCC
Stumble in La Plata County COGCC setback
surface property line 500 feet 150 feet
Commercial or industrial buildings 500 feet no rule
Residential building units and high occupancy building 500 feet Zero to 2000 feet
Reciprocal mishaps from other oil and gas facilities 500 feet no rule
Pipelines 50 feet no rule

According to the county’s preliminary rules, oil and gas infrastructure must be a minimum of 500 feet from surface property lines, commercial buildings, industrial buildings, residential building units, high-occupancy buildings, and gas and existing oil.

Perhaps the most notable direction the commissioners gave staff was to add a rule mandating a non-negotiable 500-foot setback for wellheads in residential and high-occupancy buildings.

Operators may still apply to build infrastructure within 2,000 unit feet of residential buildings and high-occupancy buildings in accordance with the four so-called “exit strips” provided in the COGCC rule. The current draft county language includes these outputs, with one modification.

Building owners and tenants may allow an operator to install a well pad within 2,000 feet with informed consent; county regulation defines and clarifies the definition of informed consent.

“These regulations and our proposed draft Chapter 90 are tailored to the needs of our community and our experience that is unique to La Plata County,” Christy Kost, county natural resource planner, told commissioners during her presentation.

Commissioner Clyde Church highlighted the fact that the regulations are relatively similar to those that currently exist.

“It’s what we’ve been using for many years, developers are familiar with it, it’s consistent with COGCC. … I don’t think we can add much to it to make it better,” Church said from the dais.

The county chose not to revise chapter 90 when it adopted a new land use code in 2020 for practical reasons. At the state level, the COGCC was in the process of writing new regulations in accordance with the Oil and Gas Conservation Act of 2019, so the county waited until the state’s minimum regulations were enacted.

Kost noted that the county has been a leader in regulating the industry and prioritizing health, safety and the environment.

“I certainly feel like we could be considered a role model leading local oversight,” said county spokesman Ted Holteen. “I think we are quite proud of our role.”

The process of reviewing the highly technical and complex regulations has been quite long and has pitted environmentalists against industry.

The San Juan Citizens’ Alliance organized a small grassroots movement of constituents pushing for a mandatory 2,000-foot setback across the board, while representatives of the oil and gas industry tried to avoid any regulation beyond what COGCC has already imposed.

The San Juan Citizens’ Alliance offered public comment and raised the question of whether the “substantially equivalent protections” rule was protective enough. The rule is one of the four “ways out.” Provides that an operator may submit a request to locate a well pad within 2,000 feet and not less than 500 feet of a residential or high-occupancy building if the operator can provide substantially equivalent protections.

In response, county staff reviewed six applications the state had approved in 2022 that cited substantially equivalent protections. Of the six permits, all issued in Weld County, five locations in La Plata County would have been denied as a result of the non-negotiable 500-foot setback rule.

“This verifies to staff that the county’s proposed regulations can replace and stop noncompliant land use code applications,” Kost wrote in a memo to commissioners.

In a letter to commissioners, Michelina Paulek, executive director of the Energy Council, the oil and gas trade organization, rejected the county’s attempts to enact stricter regulation than the state has already imposed.

“The county, outside of seeking to assert ‘local control,’ has provided no basis for why it seeks to further restrict development,” Paulek wrote.

Throughout the process, industry representatives have emphasized that the COGCC worked hard to develop its rules and argued that no additional regulation was necessary.

The commissioners seemed to strike a balance between the two interests.

“I think (the draft) provides the level of protection as well as local control that is desired and is fair,” Commissioner Marsha Porter-Norton said as she gave instructions to staff.

Before the new draft becomes code, it will go before the Planning Commission and county commissioners for approval, allowing additional time for public comment.

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