By Matthew Beaudin
The federal push for increased energy development rippled throughout the country this winter and rolled into the west end of San Miguel County. The resulting oil and gas leasing sale in February saw a record amount of the county on the auction block, as some 40,000 acres were made available for future oil and gas drilling.
During the leasing process, companies and individuals can “nominate” land where the mineral rights aren’t privately held for sale and bid on those rights-to explore and extract what’s beneath the surface-at a public auction. That auction saw industry speculation creeping toward the eastern end of the county and up the valley toward town, stopping short at Placerville. The notion that drilling rigs could soon dot the canyon like they do on Interstate 70 scared many, and the danger that oil and gas industry operations could take place along the San Miguel River was enough to beg federal intervention.
Senator Ken Salazar, a Colorado democrat, petitioned the Bureau of Land Management for more time for authorities to conduct proper studies and mitigations to protect the river corridor. As a result, some parcels were removed from the list; others were deferred to allow more time to study impacts; and still others were sold and inevitably protested. As of spring, the BLM had not issued any findings, effectively freezing those parcels in contest.
Although San Miguel is not one of the most heavily drilled counties in the state-it currently ranks tenth, well behind the leader, Garfield County-it is one of the most extensively regulated. In March, the San Miguel County Board of Commissioners ratified an additional 40-page section to the Land Use Code specifically tailored to oil and gas development on county soil. The provisions are intended to curtail the industry through more extensive controls over the process in which companies notify surface owners of planned activity, create an increased county review process and afford officials increased notification for inspections. “The oil and gas industry is exempted from most local land-use provisions. Unless the county exercises what authority it does have, we will be prevented from providing local citizens with the kind of oversight on oil and gas activities that they expect on most other land-use issues,” said county commissioner Art Goodtimes.