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  • Why moratorium on shale drilling is necessary

    La Plata County commissioners are considering enacting a moratorium on shale-oil well development at their weekly meeting Tuesday.

    It would give them time to review the county’s land-use code and make any revisions necessary to ensure the code is sufficient to deal with shale development. It is an important decision.

    Specifically, the commissioners are focused on shale oil, but they should include shale gas.

    The current low price of natural gas is limiting drilling, so it’s a prime time for the county to also review gas-related regulations.

    Moratoriums on shale development are widespread, from the state of New York to Colorado’s El Paso and Boulder counties, and numerous towns and cities in our state. While Gov. Frackenlooper and his industry cronies don’t like this trend, it is commonly seen as a rational move for several reasons.

    The primary rationale for a moratorium presented by county staff is the need to study road use so adequate fees can be assessed for the damage caused by the truck traffic that will accompany shale development. While important, this is not the only reason for a moratorium.

    The Mancos Shale in southern La Plata County is closer to the surface than any other shale gas or oil play in the country. When faced with water quality concerns, the industry mantra is that fracking occurs at such great depths that it cannot affect freshwater aquifers thousands of feet above. That “barrier” is much less comforting when much less thick. The state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has repeatedly failed to resist industry pressure, and can’t be relied upon to properly assess the potential for wells to be affected by shallow shale development. The county must take on this study.

    Soon-to-be enacted COGCC rules require testing of water wells one-half mile from the wellhead, but in a shallow, horizontal shale well it is critical that water wells be tested within one-half mile of the full length of the horizontal leg, as well as the wellhead. They will be fracking at unheard-of shallowness, and landowners deserve to know if their water is affected.

    The county must also consider water supply. Current rules require only that it come from a legally supplied source. In Southwest Colorado, the use of fresh water for a one-time use that will pollute the water so greatly it must be forever removed from the global hydrologic cycle is a travesty. There must be public discussion of what water may be used.

    Preliminary indications from northern New Mexico are that the Mancos Shale has very low pressure, meaning a lot of compressor stations may be needed to build the negative pressure to suck the oil or gas from the ground. Adding in noise and air effects, this is clearly a land-use issue, and within the county’s purview.

    Typical Mancos Shale wells in northeast Colorado initially require pads up to 10 acres. After 45-60 days, these sites revert to 3 acres. Typically, such use of county land requires full development plans, neighborhood compatibility studies and public notification. Imagine a proposal to build a hotel every square mile: the uproar would be massive, for good reason. Shale development will cause similar, and possibly much greater, effects to nearby residents.

    I am sure there are plenty of other legitimate reasons the county should enact a moratorium. Let us hope it does.

    dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.