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Still in control



El Paso County commissioners are keeping their hand in the game of oil and gas regulation by hanging onto control over groundwater monitoring, which Chair Amy Lathen labels the top issue among county residents.

But not all commissioners are happy about it: The vote at the end of Tuesday's day-long hearing was 3-2, with Peggy Littleton and Darryl Glenn against. Littleton referenced the threat of a state challenge to the move, saying, "It's irresponsible to knowingly open ourselves up to lawsuits."

The Attorney General's Office has said water quality oversight lies with the state, not the county. And the industry agrees: Andrew Casper with the Colorado Oil & Gas Association was at Tuesday's commission meeting, and said that authority belongs with state regulators.

But Lathen, Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey wouldn't budge.

"If there's anything that's absolutely crystal clear, the number one thing I hear from my constituency is water," Lathen says. "It ensures preservation and protection of water resources that could be affected. It's a reasonable thing to do. It's not going to prevent any operator from drilling. It's not going to prevent jobs. It's what's important, and what people are asking for."

The county will require baseline and periodic water testing in areas where oil and gas wells are drilled. It also retains authority over noxious weed control, emergency response for drilling sites, and transportation issues, such as possible road damage caused by hundreds of heavy trucks hauling water to the wells.

All other areas, including open-pit storage of chemicals, protection of wildlife and the amount of space required between rigs and property lines and structures, will become fodder for discussion between county and state officials. They'll be working on an intergovernmental agreement on how the state rules will be enforced, or whether specific rules for El Paso County can be developed at the state level.

On Tuesday, even as commissioners heard from a parade of citizens — many urging them to adopt rules stricter than the state's, which state officials have said is illegal — representatives of the entity at the center of the hullabaloo, Houston-based Ultra Resources told county officials to expect three to four additional applications for temporary use permits to drill wells. Ultra's already filed three applications. It wasn't clear by deadline where those wells would be located.

Ultra also filed a new application with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to drill about two miles east of Colorado Springs city limits. It seeks permission to drill a pilot well on the southwest corner of Blaney Road and Colorado Highway 94, with plans to drill up to four horizontal wells, depending on the initial results, on 330 acres owned by Roger Hawkins Family Trust, according to the Assessor's Office.

It's the third application filed by Ultra with the state. The other two were filed in December for wells on Banning Lewis Ranch, a 22,000-acre development that forms the city's eastern rim. Ultra bought 18,000 acres last year out of bankruptcy and is dickering with the city over the annexation agreement that prevents drilling. Those applications seek to drill one vertical well per site, and later perhaps build a larger pad on which to locate eight horizontal wells.

Those applications are undergoing state review before a decision within a month or two. The city has imposed a moratorium until May 31, as it develops its own rules.

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