Two months after a Texas energy company announced plans to drill horizontal shale-oil wells in southwestern La Plata County, residents have hardly reached a consensus about the practice.
More than 30 Fort Lewis Mesa residents presented a range of opinions about oil and gas development near their homes at the La Plata County Commissioners’ first “On the Road” meeting of the year at the Marvel Grange.
The meetings are meant to be an open format to address issues residents may have, and it was clear from Monday’s meeting that the impending shale development is at the top of most residents’ minds.
Attendees voiced concerns ranging from the over-regulation of the natural-gas and oil industry to the potential that under-regulation could fail to protect residents’ water, air, property and roads.
Several attendees also acknowledged the natural-gas and oil industry’s major contribution to the county’s economy and its necessity if Americans are to continue driving their cars and heating their homes.
The Fort Lewis Mesa area has seen a limited degree of oil development since the 1950s, but this type of drilling differs because the wells extend horizontally for thousands of feet and require multiple stages of fracturing.
Swift Energy, the company that plans to drill two exploratory wells in the area, intends to drill to a vertical depth of 2,500 feet, then continue horizontally for another 3,000 feet. Those plans will make its wells some of the shallowest shale wells drilled in the United States, said Dan Randolph, executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
Jeff Brame, a local petroleum geologist who has worked for oil and gas companies in several Rocky Mountain states, said that Swift’s planned wells would be the shallowest he has ever seen.
How horizontal wells drilled at such shallow depths affect water quality is not yet known, Randolph said.
Discussion also turned to hazardous materials and the county’s ability to respond to emergencies related to oil and gas activities.
The Fort Lewis Mesa Fire Protection District has limited resources to respond to major spills or emergencies, said Butch Knowlton, director of the La Plata County Office of Emergency Management. As a result, the county and the fire protection district have met with Swift officials to discuss additional emergency-management resources that will be needed in relation to shale development, Knowlton said.
But without knowing what kinds of chemicals and processes Swift will be using, it’s hard for the fire protection district to know what resources it may need, said Debbie Lee, the district’s president.
“If it does become a boom state, what’s the plan?” Lee asked. “There are things that need to be fettered out to conclusion before we say go.”
She urged commissioners to take a measured approach with energy development going forward.
“We all know oil and gas is important, but there is a way of doing it right,” she said. “We don’t have to have industry at the detriment of citizens.”
In response to concerns about road impacts, Swift is about to begin a traffic study to get an estimate of how many trucks it will use to drill and complete its wells and how that will affect county roads. The county must sign off on the study and negotiate road-improvement fees before it issues land-use permits for the two exploratory wells.
Residents left county commissioners with a request for a more expansive and thorough public notification process as they proceed with decisions about shale-oil development in the area.
The commissioners already have discussed how they could improve the communication process, Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.
“I did see that as a problem that I don’t want to see happen again,” she said.