Weld County Opens Oil And Gas Department As Uncertainty Grips Industry | KUNC

Weld County Opens Oil And Gas Department As Uncertainty Grips Industry

Aug 5, 2019

At a drill rig east of Greeley, dozens of workers are focused on moving equipment around a massive tower. But site manager Colby Edgington says there's another thing on everyone's mind.

"We may have to take our trucks and go to Wyoming or Texas or Oklahoma or something, which means I'm going to lose my guys," he said.

For now, rig work in Colorado is steady. Edgington is worried that will change in the next six to 12 months.

Since the passage of Senate 181 in April, at least eight communities have paused the permitting of new wells while they interpret the new law. This has left hundreds of applications in limbo.

But Weld County, where most of Colorado's oil and gas is produced, is making itself a sanctuary for the industry.

Last month, they voted on a land use ordinance that opened up more of the county to energy development. And starting this week, they're taking their boldest step yet.

On Monday, the county is opening a new oil and gas department, formally called the Weld County Oil And Gas Energy Department. It comes four months after Colorado lawmakers passed Senate Bill 181.

Jason Maxey, director of the Weld County Department of Oil and Gas Energy.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

Jason Maxey is the new department's director. He showed me around the building in Greeley a few days before the big opening.

"This is the hearing room that we have here," he said, pointing to four rows of neatly arranged chairs. "So right now the hearings are about to be scheduled once a week. And again, that's a little bit dependent on workload."

Maxey said he hopes it sends a message of certainty to residents who work and benefit from the industry.

"I think the message that I would like to tell the community and the operators is that this department will take a very hard, very comprehensive look at development just like any other surface use development," he said.

The main idea, according to Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer, is to create a "one-stop-shop" for oil and gas affairs as opposed to just going through state regulators.

"It's pretty black and white," she said. "Did you get the weeds controlled? Are you controlling the dust? Are you turning the lights off at night so that you're compatible and they're not shining in on a residential property right next to you? Those types of things."

Kirkmeyer said the new agency will help shorten normally lengthy permit processing times by weeks and, hopefully, make oil and gas less of a political issue.

"You now — oil and gas industry — are working with a local government that respects the industry, expects responsible development and will do what we're held accountable for," Kirkmeyer said.

A drill rig in Kersey, Weld County.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

But there are already questions about how much power the new department will actually have. Last month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission sent a letter to Weld commissioners saying the state still reigns supreme over wells sitting in parts of the county.

"It's not viewed disparagingly at all," said Chris Arend, a spokesman for the COGCC. "It obviously just depends on how they carry out their new responsibility."

But Kirkmeyer and the other commissioners responded by saying that's not how they interpreted the new law.

"With the passage of Senate Bill 181, which is now law, we had our land use regulations enhanced," Kirkmeyer said. "We also had a delegation of authority from the state."

Both sides are still talking. Arend said there are differences of opinion that are going to take longer to figure out.

"(Senate Bill) 181 did elevate public health, safety, welfare and the environment as a consideration in issuing permits," he said. "The county will have to follow that, and so those are some of the conversations that need to happen."

Colby Edgington at a drill rig site east of Greeley.
Credit Matt Bloom / KUNC

Back at the drill rig site, manager Colby Edgington takes some comfort in the opening of the new office. He says it sends a positive message to his crew and even people who don't work in the industry.

"I think it's great," he said. "It's part of the social norm or I guess I shouldn't say just the social norm. It's just part of life in Colorado."