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County agrees to shale-oil drilling

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

The national debate about shale drilling and hydraulic facturing played out Tuesday in La Plata County Courthouse as county commissioners considered signing a memorandum of understanding with a Texas energy company that has plans to drill two exploratory shale-oil wells in the southwest part of the county.

The wells will be the county’s first shale drilling.

After more than three hours of presentations and public comment, La Plata County Commissioners unanimously approved the memorandum of understanding with Swift Energy Operating LLC.

“This MOU does the best this county can do right now to protect the interests of the people who live in the area, to try to minimize the impacts on you and also allow energy development to go forward,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said.

With the agreement, Swift will go forward to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission with applications for two exploratory drilling and spacing units. The target is the Mancos Shale, a shale play that stretches across northwestern New Mexico and into Southwest Colorado and is thought to be rich in oil and natural gas.

The memorandum puts several requirements on Swift’s drilling operations, including emissions controls, water-sampling standards and well-pad sharing mandates, that go beyond what would be required by the state.

The county has made such agreements standard practice, and already has 22 memorandums of understanding with other operators in the county. The contract commissioners considered Tuesday is unique because horizontal hydraulic fracturing techniques used to unlock oil resources from the shale will have different and more intense effects on the county roads, water resources and surface landscape.

Multistage hydraulic fracturing requires at least three times the water required to drill coal-bed methane wells, for example, and shale-oil well-pad sites are about three times larger than those of coal-bed methane wells.

In response, the county added several components to the Swift memorandum that go above and beyond the standard contract for coal-bed methane operators. Those include groundwater sampling requirements that the COGCC adopted in January and will go into effect in May as well as a requirement that Swift do an assessment of all existing wells in the drilling units to make sure their operations won’t compromise the casing or cementing of those older wells.

At least 50 county residents packed the commissioners meeting room Tuesday to hear commissioners’ deliberations and share opinions about Swift’s project.

Many Fort Lewis Mesa residents cited concerns about the potential for fracking operations to contaminate groundwater in the area. Several people wanted more extensive water-well sampling requirements than those required by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which require sampling of up to four wells within one half mile from the wellhead.

“I’m concerned the MOU is not enough,” resident Jessica Copp said. “We all deserve testing before, during and after (drilling) and probably at a larger distance from the well bore and the lateral.”

Swift will drill down 2,500 feet then extend its wells laterally for up to 3,000 feet said Bob Redweik, Swift’s corporate manager of health, safety and environment.

Copp and others also brought up the issue of truck traffic along the county roads and the potential for trucks to interfere with school buses, for example.

Swift likely will haul water, crude oil, fracking chemicals and produced water to and from the well sites, Redweik said. The company estimates the wells’ daily oil production will fill two 130-barrel capacity trucks, he said.

Other residents cited concerns about the risks fracking chemicals may pose to human health and the ecological effects of air pollution from drilling.

Swift also had its supporters who encouraged the county to approve the memorandum of understanding. Holding up drilling impedes on private property rights and hinders legal private contracts, said Mae Morley, a landowner who owns both land and mineral rights within the proposed drilling unit.

If Swift’s unit applications are approved at the state level, the company said it hopes to apply for a drilling permit in April and move a rig into the area this summer.

The Mancos Shale has edged more and more into the spotlight over the last three years, and the play was at the center of a two-day conference this week that drew about 500 people from around the nation to Farmington. However, most drilling into the shale has been done in the southern part of the San Juan Basin.

The prospects for oil in the northern part of the basin are still unknown, Redweik said.

“We’re trying to prove up something that hasn’t been done before,” he said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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