After nearly three years of work — and a great deal of drama and controversy — the Elbert County Planning Commission unanimously approved new zoning regulations that will serve as a partial framework for future oil and gas exploration in the county.
The approval came at the planning commission's first meeting of 2014, held Jan. 2 in Kiowa.
The 17-page document that contains the new regulations is now available for public review. The regulations are expected to go before the Board of County Commissioners for final approval on Feb. 12.
The new regulations, which define the difference between so-called "major" and "minor" oil and gas facilities, only apply to minor facilities and establish an expedited administrative approval process that will be defined in what county officials describe as "a standard MOU" - or memorandum of understanding - currently being fine-tuned by county attorney Alex Beltz.
"The MOU is not regulatory but rather a binding contractual agreement between the operator and the county agreeing to standards higher than those set forth in state regulations," said Community Services and Development Director Kyle Fenner.
Operators of proposed major oil and gas facilities will still have to go through a more complicated "special use by review process" that Fenner said would take at least six months to complete and involves required community "informational" meetings as well as various specific approvals from both the planning commission and the BOCC.
Up to now, all oil and gas companies wishing to operate in Elbert County have had to go through the same lengthy administrative review process.
Those companies granted permits will still have to adhere to state-regulated development guidelines established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
BOCC chair Robert Rowland emphasized the new MOU will not supersede existing state oil and gas regulations but will allow minor facility operators to expedite the approval process if they are willing to consent to "more stringent guidelines" for their projects.
Rowland said he is particularly concerned with "stopping" three common practices used in the drilling process: "open pits containing produced or flowback water; spraying 'produced' water on roads; and allowing setbacks that, in some cases, can be as little as 500 feet."
"Not wanting open pits speaks for itself," said Rowland. "This county is beautiful. We don't want a bunch of big, polluted holes in the ground that are abandoned by oil companies when they leave."
Not using produced water on roads, Rowland explained, pertains to regulations that currently allow oil and gas companies to reuse the same water used in drilling to spray over area roads in order to control dust kicked up by the heavy truck traffic involved in the drilling process.
And Rowland said he also would like to see the county have the leverage to encourage drillers to create setbacks as great as 1,500 feet. "Nobody wants an oil facility operating in their back yard," he said.
"People don't understand," Rowland added. "I'm actually an environmentalist too. I'm a fanatic about a clean environment."
Saying "responsible" oil and gas development "could help ensure the long-term [financial] stability of Elbert County," Rowland added: "Up to now, many of the oil and gas companies have been frustrated and more likely to go around us than try to do business here."
Increased oil and gas revenues, Rowland said, could bolster the bank accounts of many county residents and help lift the county out of its current financial morass.
Although Elbert County has never had a moratorium on oil and gas exploration, Rowland said the adverse publicity surrounding the county's three-year struggle to approve revisions to its permitting process has slowed oil and gas development in the county.
"Why would these companies want to spend six months or more dealing with these whackadoodles?" Rowland said. "They're fed up with us."
Fenner complimented the planning commissioners on their efforts to come together and finally approve the new document, noting that they did so with a list of 17 recommended edits and minor revisions that will now be reviewed by the BOCC.
"This may not be perfect," Fenner said. "But it's a great place to start."