Commission ponders shale-oil moratorium

Energy firm’s test wells prompt worries about rules readiness

As they face the possibility that La Plata County could see shale-oil drilling for the first time in the coming year, the county’s commissioners have a range of opinions about whether a moratorium on the practice would be a necessary and prudent move.

They also plan to take up the issue at their next official planning meeting in two weeks.

Commissioner Bobby Lieb said he is against imposing a moratorium in reaction to the drilling of two exploratory shale-oil wells by Houston-based Swift Energy Co.

“(A moratorium) seems overkill for that level of development,” Lieb said.

Commissioners first discussed the concept of moratoriums on shale-oil drilling last week. The discussion was in reaction to Swift’s filing of applications for two drilling and spacing units on Fort Lewis Mesa. The target, company representatives said, is oil they believe is locked away in the Mancos Shale formation about 2,500 feet below the surface.

Lieb said if Swift’s wells end up being productive and energy companies start pushing to open up an entire field for development, then he would consider a moratorium to assess and possibly change the county’s regulations if its land-use code was determined to be inadequate.

Convincing evidence supporting the imposition of a moratorium at this point seems to be lacking, Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

“There’s not much I can see that would make me say ‘this is a good time for a moratorium,’” Westendorff said. “What we are trying to accomplish is unclear to me.”

She also doubted the legal justifications for imposing a moratorium. She said she wouldn’t make a final decision on the concept until she had time to talk with her fellow commissioners.

Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, former director of Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project, said she still is considering whether the county’s code adequately addresses shale development and whether a moratorium would be appropriate at this stage.

Most of the county’s natural-gas and oil development regulations were crafted to regulate coal-bed methane wells, which make up the majority of the 3,347 wells in the county.

Shale-oil wells extend much farther laterally and are fracked multiple times, requiring much more water than coal-bed methane wells. They also require larger well pads and more truck trips to haul water and chemicals.

“I’m trying to figure out how far off we are and if we need to substantially update our oil and gas regulations or if we are pretty far along anyway,” Lachelt said. “I feel like we need to be ahead of the game as much as possible.”

Lachelt said she has been doing her own research on the topic and remains undecided. She also is considering whether the county should implement a moratorium now or wait to see if Swift’s exploratory wells are productive, then take a timeout to assess the county’s regulations.

“You don’t want to jump the gun,” she said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com