DENVER - A lawsuit by Southwest Colorado ranchers over water rights and coal-bed methane wells has spurred the Legislature into action.
William and Elizabeth Vance and James and Mary Fitzgerald sued the state engineer's office in 2005, claiming that coal-bed methane wells were depleting their water wells. They won in a La Plata court in 2007. The case, Vance v. Simpson, is on appeal to the state Supreme Court. A ruling is expected any time.
Sen. Jim Isgar and others worry the court could require every one of Colorado's 38,000 gas wells to get a water-well permit, which would overwhelm the state engineer's office.
So Isgar, D-Hesperus, and Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, drafted House Bill 1303, which brings coal-bed methane wells into Colorado's water-rights system.
Without the bill, the court decision could force the state engineer to roll all coal-bed methane wells into the legal water system in two months. Other observers have said the court decision could apply to every gas or oil well in the state.
"We aren't in session until next January, and if this ruling comes out the day after we adjourn, we leave the state engineer in the position of having to approve 3,000, 4,000 wells in 60 days," Curry said.
The House Agriculture Committee passed the bill on a 13-0 vote Wednesday, sending it to the full House.
Tom Shipps, attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, said the tribe generally supports the bill, because it's worried about the Vance case.
"The oil and gas industry, at least with regard to coal-bed methane, could be brought to a screeching halt," Shipps said.
The tribe handles its own regulation of gas wells, but the state permits water wells on the reservation.
However, the tribe wants a few changes to HB 1303, including a clarification that gas wells can be closer to each other than 600 feet.
Curry said she would take Shipps' ideas to water experts who have been working on the bill. But the Ute plan might be problematic: Alan Curtis, attorney for the Vances, was skeptical. Otherwise, the plaintiffs support the bill as it is now, along with gas companies and environmentalists.
The bill allows the state engineer to make rules for when a gas well should be treated as tapping "nontributary" water - that is, deep water that will not harm nearby water rights. For tributary wells, it allows time for gas drillers to prepare a substitute water-supply plan, just like farmers use when they're using well water for irrigation. HB 1303 puts a three-year moratorium on integrating gas wells into the water system, to give the state engineer and the gas companies time to adjust.
Coal-bed methane wells pump out water before they start producing gas. The wells are especially plentiful - and rich - in La Plata and Archuleta counties. The Raton Basin near Trinidad also has many coal-bed methane wells.