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Exploratory drilling OKed

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Several weeks ago, El Paso County commissioners imposed a four-month moratorium on oil and gas drilling, pending the creation of county regulations. Last week, they reversed that decision, giving the green light to Ultra Petroleum of Houston to conduct exploratory drilling in the eastern part of the county.

"The exploration came up," says Commissioner Sallie Clark, "and we thought there should not be anything precluding them from looking at the initial phase of exploration, so they could see if there's anything even there."

But still, uncertainty remains for at least one commissioner.

Although Darryl Glenn voted in favor both times, now he's having second thoughts. This week, Glenn says he's hearing from staff that the county might have pulled the trigger before conducting "due diligence."

Glenn isn't happy, saying, "I think there's some concerns the planning staff was putting the cart before the horse." He hasn't said whether he'll push to revisit the issue.

The chief concern is that the county might not be able to force Ultra to pay for any county roads damaged by the company's heavy equipment. There's also the possibility that other resources, such as water, might be at risk.

But County Administrator Jeff Greene says that he believes the county can force Ultra to pay if damage is done, even though there are no such rules on the books now. And county spokesman Dave Rose says the county plans to issue a special use permit in response to the commissioners' action, which entitles the county to impose whatever requirements it wishes, including rehabilitation of damaged county assets.

Ultra, which is seeking state permits to drill in the eastern portion of the county, also recently paid $20 million for 18,000 acres of the Banning Lewis Ranch, a residential and commercial development on the city's east side.

Ultra wants to drill there, pending state and local government approvals.

— Pam Zubeck

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