Trout Creek oil well southwest of Steamboat renews debate

If you go

What: Routt County public hearing concerning Shell Oil’s request for a permit to drill the new Trout Creek well southwest of Steamboat Springs.

When: 5:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Commissioners’ Hearing Room, Routt County Courthouse, 522 Lincoln Ave.

The best means of testing groundwater quality near new exploratory oil wells in Routt County has been the rub at public hearings here for the past year. That's unlikely to change Tuesday night when Shell Oil goes before the Routt County Board of Commissioners to seek a permit for its new Trout Creek well between 8 and 9 miles southwest of Steamboat Springs.

This time around, the county commissioners will be confronted with surface rights owners Dave and Betty Anne Wandell, who have informed the county in writing that they do not want a water quality monitoring well in addition to an oil well on their property. And if last week’s Planning Commission meeting is any indication, as many as 25 people speaking out for the rights of people who own subsurface mineral rights in the Yampa Valley’s emerging oil play will be on hand to speak their minds, too.

Since the Planning Commission voted 8-1 on Nov. 1 to approve the Trout Creek well with the stipulation that Shell provide a groundwater monitoring well between it and several nearby domestic water wells, an expert from Shell and a consultant working for the county have exchanged their thoughts on the matter.

In an exchange of emails, Brenda Clark, senior environmental engineer for Shell Western Exploration and Production Inc. (SWEPI), took the position that the county has already made it clear that energy companies have the option of either monitoring existing wells or drilling monitoring wells to sample groundwater quality.

However, Routt County consultant Tom Myers of Reno, Nev., responded that it has never been his intent to make those tolls an either/or proposition.

Tuesday's hearing comes five days after a number of residents voiced their concerns to the Planning Commission about the county process for permitting oil wells.

Planning Director Chad Phillips told the county commissioners Monday that about 25 members of Citizens Supporting Property Rights attended the Planning Commission meeting Nov. 15 that was of less consequence than tonight’s meeting, but one where the level of rhetoric became tense regardless.

“It was a stressful environment to say the least,” Phillips said. “They basically said who they are and (that) they’re going to keep an eye on us.”

Phillips said the agenda for the meeting involved going over some pre-existing language in the county’s oil and gas permitting regulations for clarification.

“This was the first chance after the election for them to come in and vent about it.” Phillips said. “(Planning Commission’s discussion) doesn’t change anything, it just clarifies.”

In this case, Shell is not proposing to frack the Trout Creek well, a mitigating factor in the potential for contamination of groundwater.

The Trout Creek well pad would be situated off Routt County Road 33B about 6.5 miles by car south of U.S. Highway 40 and 2.5 miles south of Saddle Mountain, according to documents on file with the county. The closest residence and water well are about 1,700 feet to the west, and the nearest property line is 461 feet to the south. The closest surface water is a stock pond a little less than a half-mile to the east. Trout Creek itself is about a half mile west of the proposed well, which would be situated in an area of low rolling hills covered by grass.

During his presentation to the Planning Commission, Shell’s Matt Holman presented a diagram of the casings that would be built to seal the well bore and protect groundwater. He said the surface casing would run to a depth of about 1,000 feet, or about 500 feet deeper than any nearby water well. He emphasized the importance of protecting the groundwater zone, which is estimated to be 500 to 1,000 feet thick. Holman told the Planning Commission that the Trout Creek well would be angled to intersect naturally occurring open fractures about 5,000 feet below the surface. He said there is a geologic layer between the oil-bearing formation and the water–bearing zone that is a known hydrologic seal.

Shell is in the process of drilling the Dawson Creek oil well a little to the west of the proposed Trout Creek well and south of Yampa Valley Regional Airport. Shell also has approval from the county to drill the Gnat Hill well farther west in the southwest corner of the county.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

Oil wells in Routt County

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