The County Cubicle: Drill, baby, drill is county policy

Editor’s note: In an effort to keep residents informed on happenings within county government, county employees will contribute biweekly articles for “The County Cubicle.”
These articles may include responses to reader questions or expression of interest. Readers are encouraged to submit questions or suggestions to County Administrator Pat Hooker at 878-9436 or phooker@co.rio-blanco.co.us

Want to know one of the least-known facts about the natural gas industry in Colorado? The state produced a record amount of natural gas in 2009. What? How can that be, what with the drop in gas prices, the national recession and the new state drilling rules?
“I thought the gas industry was gone,” you say. Actually, the natural gas companies in Colorado produced 61.8 trillion cubic feet of gas in 2009, compared to the previous high of 44.4 trillion cubic feet in 2008.
“Well, maybe, but the number of drilling rigs operating in the state was way down, so isn’t the number of new wells also way down?” For Colorado, permits for new wells numbered 5159 in 2009 compared to 8027 in 2008, which was the highest year ever. But how does this number compare to previous years? Again a surprise, 2009 was the fourth-highest year on record for Colorado. In Rio Blanco County, there was an even smaller change. Here, 141 wells were drilled in 2008 and 139 in 2009. This compares favorably to the rest of the state and nation, where well numbers were off 30 to 40 percent.
The rig count is down in Colorado and in the county, yet with the recent advances in drilling methods many of the companies can drill a well in 30 percent less time than was possible just a couple of years ago. The gas companies are also drilling multiple wells from one pad and so do not have the usual downtime associated frequent moving the drilling rig. So a reduced rig count does not mean a reduced number of new wells. Wells are now being drilled with a lot fewer rigs.
What is Rio Blanco County doing to support the gas companies in the extraction of gas locally? The county has always taken the position that we support the responsible extraction of natural resources. By working closely with all the operators, we are able to process and approve applications for new wells in a matter of days, not the months typical of other regulators. We have also permitted a number of large pipeline projects in the county, which have allowed prices for local gas to equalize with the rest of the nation. This is in part why we have not seen the same reduction in the level of drilling experienced elsewhere.
Granted, things are much quieter in town than they were two years ago. That is to be expected with the completion of the fourth major gas plant and two major pipelines in the last three years. Each of these projects required hundreds of workers during the construction phases. The day-to-day operation of each facility requires only a few people. Other gas plants and pipelines are in the planning stages, but they will probably not go forward until the price of natural gas rebounds. With that rebound, we may again see full motels, restaurants with waiting lists and long waits to turn onto Market Street.
If you have questions or comments, contact the Rio Blanco County Planning Office at 878-9580.