La Plata County and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe have agreed to new terms about the operation of oil and gas production by the tribe on county-owned lands.
Because the SUIT is a sovereign nation, the tribe’s oil and gas companies – Red Willow Production Co. and Red Cedar Gathering Co. – are not subject to state regulations.
However, around 2004, when oil and gas production was peaking in Southwest Colorado, the tribe and county, in a show of good faith, entered an agreement to help address some of the issues that were arising between development and residents.
The two sides entered what’s called a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that applies to non-Native American fee lands within the exterior boundaries of the SUIT reservation.
Courtney Roseberry, natural resource planner for La Plata County, said the agreement was a way for the tribe and county to resolve many of the issues surrounding oil and gas development, without having to go through a time-consuming and costly court process.
“Rather than getting into a battle in court, we all said let’s come up with an alternative on how to treat (oil and gas issues),” Roseberry said.
County commissioners Tuesday approved an amended MOU with the tribe.
Lindsay Box, spokeswoman for the tribe, did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday morning. County officials, however, said the SUIT has approved the new agreement.
Most of the changes in the updated agreement include defining terms not previously defined in the 2004 MOU and refining the complaint-resolution process, both for existing oil and gas facilities and new ones set to be constructed.
One of the most substantial amendments, Roseberry said, is the section about how the tribe deals with impacts to county roads and bridges as a result of its oil and gas operations. Now, the SUIT has a wider range of options for how to improve and maintain roads and bridges.
“This doesn’t give the county jurisdiction to tell the tribe what to do,” Commissioner Julie Westendorff said. “But it’s the best we can do to facilitate a relationship where we come to a mutual understanding. ... It sounds like the tribe is willing to ... be treated the same as any other developer.”
Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the county is fortunate to have a successful, cooperative relationship with the tribe. She said that while oil and gas development is down in the region, it’s likely that in the future it will pick up, and some of those issues in the agreement will come to the forefront.
“This is a really important agreement to have moving forward,” she said.
County attorney Sheryl Rogers said the agreement covers a swath of areas of potential impacts from oil and gas operations. But, she said there could be scenarios where the county and the tribe have a difference of opinion about some issues, like mitigating surface impacts.
However, Rogers said the new MOU articulates the process to better address these issues before drilling takes place.
“There is the legal, political and historical reality of the tribe’s sovereignty,” she said. “But everyone is committed to working on a solution.”
La Plata County has thousands of natural gas wells, drilled during the boom years in the 1990s and early 2000s. Production has waned, however, in recent years as the market has driven the price of natural gas down, and it has become cheaper to drill in other places.
It is unclear how many gas wells the tribe owns in the county. According to Red Willow Production Co.’s website, it is in the top 25 privately owned oil and gas companies in the U.S., holding an interest in more than 1,800 wells across the country.