The Barton County Commission will not submit a request for a public hearing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over the two proposed oil wells in the Cheyenne Bottoms area. A motion to ask for the hearing made by Commissioner Jennifer Schartz died for a lack of a second.
The Corps’ Kansas City District, along with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, are accepting comments over drilling on The Nature Conservancy (TNC) land by H&C Oil Company of Plainville and by L.D. Drilling of Great Bend. County Administrator Richard Boeckman said he and several of the commissioners have fielded questions about the proposals and thought it a good idea to bring the matter to the public meeting.
Public notices for both sites were posted on the Corps’ website earlier this month and the 21-day comment period for both end in early July.
“This is not our decision to make,” Schartz said. But, “this has been important to me.”
Also, she was one of the commissioners to receive feedback from constituents.
However, since both wells would be on privately held land, it became a matter of not interfering with the rights of the landowners. The land is owned by TNC, but private parties own the mineral rights.
Ultimately, the Corps will make the final ruling.
What is Cheyenne Bottoms?
Technically, Cheyenne Bottoms refers to a 41,000-acre basin formed around 100,000 years ago, said Rob Penner of the TNC, an international non-profit conservation organization. Of that, 28,000 acres fall under the management of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (about 21,000 acres) and the TNC (about 7,000 acres).
Collectively, the managed portions are considered wetlands of international importance. Nonetheless, oil and gas drilling has taken place in the region (roughly defined by U.S. 281 in the west, K-4 in the north and K-156 in the south) for decades.
Jim Hays, a consultant for TNC on oil-related issues, said both of the wells are on Conservancy ground, but the it only holds the surface rights, not the mineral rights. One is about 870 feet from the state-managed Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and the other about two miles from the area.
“We are not opposed to the development of these wells, Hays said. They just want the producers to follow long-established permitting procedures.
“Our approach has been to work with the developers,” he said. “If permitting is required, we must want to make sure they do so.”
More information needed
“There has not been enough information,” Schartz said. With the public comment period winding down, there are time constraints and the commission had to rush to get the matter on its agenda.
“There is a lot of suspicion,” she said. Schartz has had several constituents contact her about the issue, some felt there was something underhanded about the lack of public information available.
A public hearing, she said, may help quiet some of those fears.
“Everybody sort of takes ownership of Cheyenne Bottoms,” she said of county residents in making her motion to request the public hearing . They are proud of the attraction and the county has an obligation to help maintain it.
The Conservancy has been working on these projects for over a year, Hays said. “These were not just thrown together.”
An intent to drill were for the sites were filed with the Kansas Corporation Commission last year and approved.
A matter of rights
“We all want to see Cheyenne Bottoms succeed,” said Commissioner Kenny Schremmer, adding the Conservancy is a very worthwhile organization. But, “the County Commission is not in the position to get involved.”
This is not public land, he said. “They should not have the right to tell them not to drill on private property.”
Commission Chairman Don Cates said Barton County has one of the lowest mill levee rates in Kansas. This is due in large part to oil and gas which account for 23 percent of the county’s total valuation.
Plus, he said, American troops have died overseas to protect the nation’s energy supply. We have an obligation, he said, to do what we can to bolster domestic production.
“This is a highly regulated industry,” said Great Bend attorney Tim Keenan, who spoke on behalf of L.D. Drilling and George Miller, who owns the mineral rights under the H&C drill site.
But, since this is a sensitive eco-system, more is being done on the L.D. Drilling site. “There are special arrangements to minimize the impact,” Keenan said.
An obligation to the future
Pointing to a poster featuring the Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas, Felix Revello of Pawnee County said the bottoms made the list. He he respects the property owners, but “we have to look at the rights of people to enjoy the bottoms in a relatively natural condition.”
The county has to be responsive to these needs as well. “These values strike at the very core of what makes us people.”
Children need to have the opportunity to have an “outdoor adventure” and learn about nature.
And, “there is an economic value to the community,” Revello said. Between motel stays, travel, dining and shopping, bottoms-inspired tourism accounts for over $30 million in the local economy.
“The bottoms can be developed in a thoughtful manner,” he said. But, decisions made now will impact generations to come, so they must be made wisely.