If the average person isn’t confused by the ongoing Ursa vs. Battlement Mesa saga by now, then they are not paying attention.
I’m so confused I fell for the Post Independent spin that Ursa’s recently proposed Lacy Park pad is the first test of the new state rule governing large urban mitigation area facilities. No, it’s not. The Battlement Mesa permit applications are the first test of the new state rule. It was right here in front of me on my own blog: New rule applies to Ursa’s Battlement Mesa permits.
But that’s the idea. We’re supposed to be confused. Ursa’s recent actions are designed to keep up the media spin and keep Battlement Mesa residents nervous and scratching their heads, which isn’t difficult considering the amounts of toluene (affects the nervous system) and other toxic chemicals (cause skin rashes) they’re exposed to 24 hours a day from Ursa’s existing well pads & facilities. The greater goal seems to be to creating plenty of confusion so that the general public just tunes it out — a more likely scenario.
What is the new state rule?
The new state rule defines a large urban mitigation area facility, or UMA as “any Oil and Gas Location proposed to be located in an Urban Mitigation Area and on which: (1) the operator proposes to drill 8 or more new wells; or (2) the cumulative new and existing on-site storage capacity for produced hydrocarbons exceeds 4,000 barrels.”
COGCC existing setbacks rules are:
- “Designated Setback Location” shall mean any Oil and Gas location upon which any Well or Production Facility is or will be situated within, a Buffer Zone Setback (1,000 feet), or an Exception Zone Setback (500 feet), or within one thousand (1,000) feet of a High Occupancy Building Unit or a Designated Outside Activity Area, as referenced in Rule 604. The measurement for determining any Designated Setback Location shall be the shortest distance between any existing or proposed Well or Production Facility on the Oil and Gas Location and the nearest edge or corner of any Building Unit, nearest edge or corner of any High Occupancy Building Unit, or nearest boundary of any Designated Outside Activity Area. [2 CO ADC 404-1:100 – Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission]
- “High Occupancy Building Unit” shall mean: any operating Public School as defined in § 22-7-703(4), C.R.S., Nonpublic School as defined in § 22-30.5-103.6(6.5), C.R.S., Nursing Facility as defined in § 25.5-4-103(14), C.R.S., Hospital, Life Care Institutions as defined in § 12-13-101, C.R.S., or Correctional Facility as defined in § 17-1-102(1.7), C.R.S., provided the facility or institution regularly serves 50 or more persons; or an operating Child Care Center as defined in § 26-6-102(1.5), C.R.S. [2 CO ADC 404-1:100 -Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission]
First and foremost, the oil & gas industry despises regulations. Don’t listen to a word they say in praise of regulations. They hate regulations like vampires fear daylight.
When it comes to the application and permitting process, O&G operators loathe the spotlight. They do not enjoy consultations with the locals. They much prefer disclosing as little as possible, especially when they come from Texas. They are accustomed to operating under the cloak of nobody-paying-any-attention-to-what’s-going-on. That’s precisely why we have witnessed maneuvers during the weeks surrounding the July 4th holiday weekend when people are preoccupied with all sorts of summer activities.
So, in the words of presidential candidate and noted sociopath Donald Trump: “What is going on?”
To answer the question we have to go back in time several months.
On December 17, in spite of repeated, strident, well-founded objections from residents, Ursa obtained approvals from Garfield County to construct 2 well pads (B pad and D pad) that will drill over 50 wells inside the Battlement Mesa PUD, and build a 2.5-miile pipeline through the subdivision.
Ursa’s next step required obtaining permit approvals from the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). But Ursa had already submitted their permit applications to the state the week before — December 11 to be exact — the county commissioners anointed them with their unanimous approvals.
What was the rush?
While the Battlement Mesa hearings were going on in Garfield County, the COGCC was embroiled in deliberations over Governor Hickenlooper’s task force recommendations in Denver. They were all hung up on what constitutes a large urban mitigation area facility — UMA — and how were they going to regulate that monstrosity. Under the guidelines being discussed, Ursa’s proposed B pad and D pad are considered large UMA facilities. After last year’s lengthy and grueling procession of public meetings and public hearings, you can bet Ursa did not want to be subjected to more doughy, untested new state regulations. Ursa felt they had paid their dues and publicly patted themselves on the back.
After winning approval from Garfield County, Ursa’s Don Simpson (VP, Business Dev) gave the Daily Sentinel his held-our-feet-to-the-fire speech:
“There was no stone left unturned and we went way over and above the … state regulations. Some of them were good protections for the area and some of them were probably superfluous and not needed as much, but we went along with them, so we’re doing them.”
The COGCC’s new rule regarding large UMA facilities was adopted on January 25, 2016, but did not take effect until March 16, 2016. No doubt Ursa figured they were home free. Assuming they had somehow earned a “good neighbor” exemption from the new rule, Ursa expected to breeze right through the COGCC’s permit approval process.
They were wrong.
The first bite of the apple from the state appeared in a February 29th letter to COGCC’s Matt Lepore, in which CDPHE oil & gas liaison Kent Kuster raised concerns about the location of a Class II injection well on the proposed B pad, which is located less than 300 feet from the Colorado River and immediately upstream from Battlement Mesa’s water intake.
… URSA’s BMC B well pad includes a Class II injection well with six produced water storage tanks that the Department believes creates a significant contamination risk to the public water supply for Battlement Mesa …
March was not a good month for Ursa.
The next bite of the apple occurred during the COGCC meeting on March 7. COGCC Chair Thomas Compton consulted with Executive Director Lepore who confirmed that the decision had been made that the new rules apply to all pending applications, including Ursa’s Battlement Mesa permit applications. That likely came as quite a surprise to the folks at Ursa.
So, even though the Post Independent has claimed that Ursa’s Lacy Park pad proposal next to Grand Valley High School is the first test of the new state rule, they’re wrong. According to the COGCC, Ursa’s Battlement Mesa permit applications are the first test of the new rule.
Another bite of the apple followed in a second letter from CDPHE’s Kuster on March 16, in which he stated that Ursa’s application for the B pad “was submitted with substantially incorrect information that has affected the consultation by CDPHE that could provide additional protections to the public water supply.” The CDPHE recommended denial of Ursa’s request for a variance.
The COGCC staff then took a costly bite of the apple on March 24, when they filed an “Order Finding Violation” (OFV) against Ursa Operating. Based on several on-site inspections dating back to December and January, Ursa was cited for odors and leaky gauge hatches on tanks at the Monument Ridge pad and Watson Ranch B pad located just outside the Battlement Mesa PUD. The enforcement hearing was originally on the docket for the COGCC meeting in Denver, June 6-7. Ursa could face a fine of up to $36,000.
Shortly thereafter, in early April, Ursa insisted that the COGCC schedule hearings on the Battlement Mesa permit applications.
Under the new state rule regarding LUMA facilities an operator can request a hearing 90 days following a determination that the application is complete. Ursa filed the request for a hearing two days after the 90 days lapsed. The COGCC scheduled the hearings for the meeting in Denver, June 6-7.
But — damn — Ursa was already on the enforcement docket for that March violation order. So they requested a continuation of the hearings until the July 18-20 COGCC meeting which was scheduled to be held in Sterling, about as far away from Battlement Mesa as you can get and still be in the same state.
Amazingly, none of the above, dating all the way back to the county approvals, was covered in the local newspapers until an article appeared in the Post Independent on May 25: Ursa requests hearing on Battlement applications.
But Ursa had requested the hearings in April. So the PI sprang into action on the Battlement Mesa story like Rip Van Winkle waking up after snoozing off in January. To the reporter’s credit the article was lengthy and well-researched, an update on what was up with Battlement Mesa since the county approvals.
Since public hearings are not always necessary because the COGCC has the power to approve permit applications without holding hearings, Ursa’s request was deemed “unusual.”
Is Ursa attempting to put pressure on the state’s new review process?
Battlement Concerned Citizens co-chair Dave Devanney said: “I think this is abnormal behavior for operators to pressure the regulators to come up with a decision before they’re ready to. I don’t know why they would do that — what their motivation would be.”
Simpson was defensive:
… “We didn’t feel it was moving fast enough ahead so we went ahead and got on the docket,” said Don Simpson, vice president of business development. “And we had some more meetings with (COGCC staff) and then we said, ‘OK it looks like we’re moving ahead … so let’s just postpone it and get that hearing pushed to the July docket’” …
That set off a crispy exchange between Simpson and Lepore in the article:
…COGCC director Matt Lepore said he is aware of only two other instances in which an operator actually requested a hearing.
“It’s very unusual, almost unheard of, for an operator to request a hearing on the permit,” he said, though any operator has the right to do so.
Simply requesting a hearing date does not equate to a set date for any decision, and COGCC staff could make a recommendation prior to then.
“We, again, are just going to continue to work with Ursa and all of the other stakeholders in due course and see if we can reach an end point without having a hearing,” Lepore said. “But if we don’t then we’ll go have a hearing and that’s fine” …
… “We don’t want to rush (COGCC) but we don’t want them to not … make constructive advancement on the permits,” Simpson said, adding that the request was not adversarial.
Lepore does not agree with the insinuation that COGCC failed to make constructive advancements.
While COGCC has long made an effort to evaluate applications as efficiently as possible, according to Lepore, several developments in the past several years have fueled lengthier consideration periods …
… “I will just say that in my opinion staff at COGCC has diligently attended to the permit process here and that Ursa perhaps misunderstands the distinction between going through the county permitting process — that does not give them a free pass on the COGCC process, as much as they might wish that were the case” …
You can almost hear the “how-dare-you” snort coming from Lepore.
And the bites of the apple just kept on coming.
In May the Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA) filed for intervenor status in order to participate in the hearings. Ursa called their request “frivolous” and asked the COGCC to reject it.
The COGCC was not forthcoming with a hasty decision.
At the COGCC meeting June 6-7, the hearing on Ursa’s violation order was continued till the July meeting, the date for which they had by-that-time demanded hearings.
No worries. Ursa figured they had that covered. Remember? The July meeting was scheduled to be held in Sterling, as far from Battlement Mesa as you can get and still be in the same state.
Then on June 17, the COGCC sneaked in another bite of the apple and moved the July meeting venue from Sterling to Glenwood Springs, of-all-places, a mere 44.5 miles from Battlement Mesa.
Simpson complained about the change of venue to the Daily Sentinel, “We don’t understand why it was moved.”
Then he whined about the BCC/GVCA request for intervenor status:
… “They’re going to get misinformation from the activists and they’re going to get outright lies from the activists, basically,” Simpson said …
… Said Simpson, “We’ve already been good neighbors and it’s gotten us nowhere.”
“Those (issues) were addressed and we’ve gotten nowhere …”
And he famously asked, “How many more bites of the apple do they need to get?”
One more, fer sure. BCC and GVCA were granted intervenor status on June 22.
The following week, Ursa submitted their second request for continuation of the Battlement Mesa permit applications hearings, from Glenwood Springs, July 18-20, to Denver, August 29-30. The COGCC approved their request.
No more Ursa vs. Battlement Mesa showdown in Glenwood Springs.
Simpson made excuses to the Post Independent:
… “We continued the hearing just like we did in June because we feel like we’re making some more progress working with COGCC,” Simpson said.
This makes no sense. If they were making progress the COGCC would have approved the applications by now. Continuations are not a sign of progress.
… Simpson dismissed any idea that Ursa requested the continuation to make it more difficult for other parties to participate, and pointed to the first continuation that pushed the hearing to July.
“There’s no basis in that,” he said. “It’s just a normal course of business. We don’t look for a venue to have [a hearing].”
No. When Ursa asked for the continuation to July, the COGCC meeting was scheduled to be held in Sterling. The meeting venue wasn’t changed to Glenwood Springs until Friday, June 17.
He added that Ursa would rather have its applications approved through the review process, as opposed to having a hearing.
As has been the case, COGCC can render a decision prior to the scheduled hearing.
Simpson said he could not point to specific items that are garnering additional attention from COGCC.
“We’re just trying to make sure everyone is in agreement with the conditions of approval and [best management practices]” …
Well I can “point to specific items that are garnering additional attention from COGCC:” the CDPHE letters that took Ursa to task on the location of the B pad, a location that residents have objected to all along. After the CDPHE recommended denial of Ursa’s request for a variance, Ursa demanded hearings not once, but twice, and now a third time.
If Ursa “would rather have its applications approved through the review process,” then they should allow the review process to proceed according to the rules.
It’s important to note that everything Simpson said contradicts what Ursa stated in their motion to continue.
…In its motion to continue the hearing, Ursa stated that COGCC staff requested more time to review the applications, as well as additional information, during a meeting on June 24.
Recognizing the difficulty in reviewing the new information while also preparing for the July hearing, Ursa stated it would be more efficient to spend time “in the permit and technical review process.”
Continuing the hearing to August would offer adequate time to review the new information, Ursa wrote in its motion …
When you put Ursa’s actions in the context of the timeline since December, the evidence leaves no doubt about what’s going on. Ursa is manipulating the state’s new application review process for large urban mitigation area facilities. Ursa is also attempting to make it difficult for citizens to participate in the state’s review and public hearing process.