Last summer, Colorado’s Delta County Commission made history when it denied state-approved drilling permits for four out of five coalbed methane wells (HCN, 9/2/02: One Colorado County Takes a Stand). The commissioners cited concerns about drilling’s impacts on water quality. But in May, they backed down.

County Attorney Brad Kolman says they didn’t have much of a choice. In March, the Denver District Court ruled that the county commission lacks the authority to trump the state’s earlier decision to grant leases to the Gunnison Energy Corporation. The judge said mining-related water-quality problems are a matter of state, not county, jurisdiction.

The commission conceded, but Kolman says the county is developing new regulations to increase information-sharing between county and state agencies about potential mining impacts. It also hired the Colorado School of Mines to perform a regional impact study to compare with Gunnison Energy’s study.

“They just caved,” says Jeremy Puckett, assistant director of the Paonia-based Western Slope Environmental Resource Council. “We were disappointed that the county didn’t appeal the district court’s decision.”

Drilling may start as soon as this summer, says Tony Gale, vice president of the Denver-based Gunnison Energy Corporation.

Gunnison Energy already has a mineral rights lease on 90,000 acres in Delta County and, if test wells yield coalbed methane, the area could see up to 600 new wells.