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Colorado county still waiting on oil boom

CHEYENNE — It is quiet along the open Colorado plains that rest a few miles south of Laramie County’s border.

In many locations, the single-lane dirt roads that cut across U.S. Highway 85 are the only man-made changes to the Earth that can be seen in any direction.

But the tranquil setting is hardly representative of the vast transformations occurring in the rest of Weld County.

“I think people are really noticing all the changes going on from the oil and gas developments,” said Eric Berglund, CEO and president of Upstate Colorado Economic Development. “The hotels are almost at occupancy, restaurants are busier, dealerships are selling cars like crazy, and there are trucks all over the place.”

All of this has occurred during the past few years as Weld County has become the epicenter of activity within the Niobrara shale n an oil- and gas-rich formation that stretches from just north of Denver into southern Wyoming and parts of Nebraska.

The drilling has brought in an influx of population, jobs and economic growth to the Colorado county.

But experts say Weld County, so far at least, has been able to manage and absorb the bulk of that growth.

And although Laramie County could be benefiting somewhat from its southern neighbor, it’s not seeing a large amount of jobs or population growth spill over into its borders.

The impacts of an oil and gas boom

Fueled by the oil and gas developments, Weld County has been one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation.

The county’s population grew by nearly 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And census data shows it grew an additional 4.3 percent n from 252,582 to 263,691 residents n from 2010 to 2012.

But many believe that is just the beginning.

Upstate Colorado Economic Development projects the county will gain 21,855 more people n or 8.4 percent of its population n by 2017.

This recent growth and optimism for the future is largely due to the county’s emergence as Colorado’s largest oil and gas producing area.

Operators in Weld County have produced more than 31 million barrels of oil so far this year. By comparison, oil production in all of Wyoming last year resulted in an output of 57 million barrels.

And operators in Laramie County, so far this year, have produced about 945,000 barrels, which is not even half of what Weld County produces in an average month.

The difference between Weld County’s oil output and that of Laramie County can be attributed largely to what is happening in the Wattenberg Field. The 350,000-net-acre field lies northeast of Denver in southern Weld County.

Companies have drilled the field for decades. But the rise of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing has made the area one of the country’s most coveted oil and gas developments.

“Wattenberg (horizontal drilling) is a billion-barrel opportunity in an existing core area, making this field one of the largest and most cost-efficient onshore oil and natural gas projects in the U.S,” Jim Kleckner, a vice president with Anadarko, said in a statement.

Anadarko and Nobel Energy n the two companies that hold a majority of drilling rights in the area n have also publicly stated they intend to invest tens of billions of dollars over the next decades into further developing the field.

These investments are expected to keep the jobs and population flowing into the county for the foreseeable future.

But can a county that has been known throughout the years for its agricultural base handle this kind of growth?

Different situation than North Dakota

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway cringes when someone compares what is happening in his county to the booming Bakken shale developments in North Dakota and Montana.

The Bakken is responsible for one-tenth of the country’s entire oil production. And according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, its output is projected to top one million barrels of oil per day in December.

The oil boom there has been both a gift and a burden for its communities.

Many of the small towns and cities in the area have struggled to meet the needs of the surge of new residents.

But Conway says Weld County is different.

For one, its production numbers, while impressive, are still nowhere near the Bakken’s.

And secondly, he said, Weld County has the experience, workforce, infrastructure and geography to handle its growth.

“There is an advantage to being a county with 4,000 square miles,” he said. “And we have more communities, with 31, and more school districts than any other county in the state.”

Conway said these spread-out communities, especially those along the Interstate 25 corridor, are all able to absorb some of the population growth so it is not too great in any one given area.

And, unlike North Dakota, Weld County has a major city in Denver that is just minutes away.

Conway said having such a large workforce within commuting distance has saved Weld County from seeing too overwhelming of a population spike.

Berglund, with Upstate Colorado Economic Development, said many of Weld County’s hotels have been used to house the oil and gas crews.

He said the housing market is also picking up, but the developments are more localized to the central or southern part of the county.

Because much of Weld County’s oil and gas activity is occurring in the south, he said there isn’t much growth being seen in the northern communities near the Wyoming border n or Wyoming itself.

For example, his group projects hardly any population growth in the next four years in the small northern towns of Grover, Nunn and Raymer.

These three communities make up a population of about 653, according to the 2012 census data. And they are projected to grow by just 31 people by 2017.

Instead, Conway said, much of the growth has been distributed among many of the southern communities, such as the tri-town area of Dacono, Frederick and Firestone, and larger surrounding communities, such as Greeley and Fort Collins.

Conway added that communities within Weld County and the surrounding Colorado counties have been working proactively to make sure they can meet the needs of any forthcoming population increases.

He said this means being flexible with planning matters and keeping in contact with industry officials so they have a good idea of where the future growth will occur.

“When you talk to most people, the growth here is manageable and about right,” he said. “We haven’t hit critical mass where the growth would be almost out of control.

“And frankly, we have room to grow still.”

But will growth to the south help us?

Although Laramie County’s population is unlikely to jump significantly due to Weld County’s growth, benefits can be gained from the activity occurring south of its borders.

Like Weld County, Laramie County is growing.

Laramie County’s population grew 3 percent n from 91,738 to 94,483 n between 2010 and 2012, according to census estimates.

Barbara Kloth, an associate planner in the Laramie County Planning and Development Office, said they are continuing to see housing developments and new businesses spring up in the county.

“We’ve seen a pretty steady (housing) growth, but it’s not necessarily a boom,” she said. “Part of that is because of new businesses in the area though.”

The new businesses include growth in the data centers and other technology-related jobs here.

But one of the few noticeable impacts of Weld County’s success can be seen in the growth of oil service companies within Cheyenne and the surrounding area.

Kloth said several of these businesses, which include companies that help set up pipelines or transport water used in the hydraulic fracturing process, have opened recently.

Hinchey said he has also noticed the presence of new oil-related companies in southeast Wyoming.

He said a benefit for these companies is that they are a short drive away from oil rigs that could be operating in Wyoming or Colorado.

Conway said he is also seeing “dual benefits” for Laramie and Weld counties.

He said just as Cheyenne residents drive down to Fort Collins or Greeley, Weld County residents also make frequent trips up to Cheyenne.

And with more people making the trip to Wyoming and having more money to spend, he said Cheyenne and the rest of the region stands to gain from their growth.

“I know a lot of people go up for the weekends, whether it is for a wonderful brunch at Little America or enjoying a weekend night at the Outlaw,” he said. “And it’s like that old adage: A rising tide lifts all ships.” ___

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