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2/7/2013 Experts discuss oil and gas fracking at community forum

Attended by approximately 110 people, the January 22nd “Fracking Forum” produced a plethora of information for valley residents. Presenters included Ben Lenth of San Isabel Land Protection Trust, Sue Pitman of Sustainable Ways, archeologist Gary Ziegler, Zack Owens of Alliance for Sustainable Colorado and Jeff Briggs from Huerfano County. Each of the presentations explored the issue of fracking and how it can impact our local community.

 Lenth addressed split estate, when a landowner owns the surface rights while another individual or corporation possess mineral rights. According to Lenth, in Custer County, 40% of surface land is government owned and 60% privately owned. Thirty to 50% of those are split estates, with three fourths of mineral rights owned by the federal or state government. The BLM currently manages 54% of minerals in the county, with one-forth mineral rights possessed by private entities.

 Those who own mineral rights have “right to access” those minerals, Lenth said, allowing extraction operations to occur on private land. Surface owners cannot stop drilling, though mineral rights owners must follow a “reasonable standard” when excavating. Lenth noted gas/mining companies can install roads (with truck traffic) and mining equipment on private land. 

 He also stated local landowners should be concerned with silver mining, since 35 new contracts exist to start silver mining in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff area.

 Sue Pitman, Chair of Sustainable Ways, then presented, stating how the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contained the “Halliburton Loophole” that exempts gas companies from regulations stipulated by the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. This 2005 act even exempts gas companies from following state water laws.

 As a result, Pitman says, since 2005 more than 50,000 natural gas wells have been drilled in Colorado. The Halliburton Loophole allows slick water fracking companies to use water injected with 596 chemicals. Gas companies do not disclose the fracking chemicals they use, considering these chemicals “trade information,” so that citizens are unaware of the environmental impact or health risks that fracking fluid can cause.

 Moreover, Pitman notes, each fracking event requires 500 million gallons of water, draining this precious resource from local rivers, streams and aquifers. Some gas companies have purchased ranches to obtain water rights. She also pointed out that semis haul waste fluids over 100 miles to open pit facilities in Utah on Interstate 70, contributing to road stress and the possibility of toxic spillage if a road accident occurs.

 According to Pitman, the only protection, a minimal one, that Custer County has against gas drilling is through “special use permits” authorized by the Planning Commission. Custer County can also update its zoning regulations and put in place land protection laws.

 The county can also appoint an LGD, or Local Government Designee, to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which oversees gas/oil production in the state. An LGD will keep local residents apprised of future drilling activities. Currently, Custer County does not have a LDG, a volunteer position that liaisons between the COGCC, county leadership and the local population.

 Next, Gary Ziegler – assisted by Gary Taylor, paleontologist/retired geologist and petroleum industry manager and Doug Cain, retired USGS hydrologist -- provided a geological assessment of the valley. He concluded that, due to its rock formation, Custer County has little or no oil/gas to drill. He said the fracking occurring in Huerfano County has not endangered the Wet Mountain Valley aquifer.

 In his presentation, Zach Owens described the setback debate now occurring in the state. A setback defines the space between a well and a landowner’s home. Currently, the setback is 350 feet; conservation groups have petitioned the COGCC to increase setbacks to 1,000 feet from homes and 1,500 from public buildings like schools and hospitals. There are no setback limits imposed on drilling near streams, rivers or other live water sources.

 Jeff Briggs described his experience with fracking in his county. Briggs said, “Coalbed methane extraction from 2000 forward has wreaked havoc in Las Animas and Huerfano Counties producing a cancer cluster along the Apishapa River, destroying agricultural fields on the Corsentino Ranch east of I-25, and ruining drinking water for homes at River Ridge east of La Veta and other places throughout the area. Now we are faced with deep shale drilling and the likely fracking that goes with it.”

 Briggs related how the County Commissioners (two no longer in office) secretly met with gas officials, who agreed to open the county up to massive gas drilling without citizen awareness or input. In closing, Briggs advised Custer County residents to stay on top of gas lease activity, join with other citizen action groups in the state and rethink the use of energy in our own lives.

 Afterwards, the presenters fielded questions from the audience. Several concerns were raised, including if Custer County Commissioners had met with gas/oil representatives, with some audience members indicating they believe meetings had occurred. Forum-goers also discussed the need to install a local LDG to work with the COGCC and county commissioners.

 Interested individuals may view the slide presentation of the Forum at sustainableways.org. -Cyn Williams