Shale oil

La Plata County is no stranger to natural-gas production, and that decades-long familiarity with the industry’s effects – positive and negative – has produced a comprehensive history of learning to strike a balance between the often divergent priorities of a wide range of interests including industry, landowners, public health officials, county finance personnel and job seekers. As the gas and oil industry has evolved in terms of technology and market forces, the county and its residents have as well. With a new focus on shale oil, that evolution continues.

In the latest example of that evolution, the La Plata County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding between the county and Swift Energy Operating, a Texas company interested in exploring shale-oil production on 1,220 acres in the southwestern part of the county. The agreement allows the company to proceed to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for approval to drill two exploratory wells into the Mancos Shale formation thought to be rich in oil and natural gas reserves.

In keeping with the county’s record of attempting to balance landowner, public-health and environmental concerns against the economic and resource benefits of gas and oil production, the agreement requires Swift to put in place emissions controls, water sampling for nearby water wells, and well-pad sharing protocol so as to minimize the surface disturbance associated with the drilling activity. These are all important measures that protect nearby landowners as well as the regional environment in anticipation of what could be a large-scale drilling development.

While the county is building on the knowledge gained from coal-bed methane production – the predominant method in the region – the move to shale gas is somewhat uncharted territory. Shale gas wells are far deeper than coal-bed methane wells, and releasing the gas trapped within the shale layers is somewhat more involved. Concerns about water use are significant: Shale-gas production is estimated to require three times as much water for fracking operations as needed for coal-bed methane wells. That increase will have a correlative effect on county roads, where water and equipment will be hauled to drilling sites. The county will need to keep close tabs on how that activity’s effects compile and compound over time, and the Swift test wells will provide an instructive case study.

The commissioners were correct to recognize that property owners – surface and mineral alike – have a right to develop their resources, and that the path forward requires concessions from all sides. Proceeding with caution but also confidence is in the best interest of all involved. Monitoring the results of the exploration efforts will be as critical as this foundational memorandum of agreement.

The county’s record suggests that it will remain at the leading edge of crafting workable balances between the various interests concerned about gas and oil production in the region. It has historically set and maintained a high bar and Tuesday’s agreement – while not wholly pleasing all parties – is in keeping with that tradition. The county has taken a measured and meaningful step into shale gas exploration.

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