First Hearing on New Regs Draws Split Crowd

The oil and gas industry hates change, especially if it’s going to cost them money and time. With Colorado’s severance tax rate on natural gas production one of the lowest in the West and Third World protection on the environment and public welfare, it couldn’t be much of a surprise that public pressure would eventually ignite an overhaul of oil and gas regulations. What changes are fair depends on your point of view.PhotobucketIt was a mixed crowd of local and state government staff and elected officials, sportsmen, concerned citizens and community activists at the special Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) meeting last Thursday in the Battlement Mesa community center, located in the heart of gas drilling activity in western Garfield County.

In the standing-room-only room of an estimated 300-person crowd, these local folks dotted the huge crowd of oil and gas industry workers, company officials and lobbyists who were there to protect the status quo in state regulations concerning well permitting, chemical use, and mitigating drilling impacts on public health and wildlife.

Spotting the industry supporters was easy. Before the COGCC meeting, in another room at the center, the oil and gas industry had a social gathering and gave everyone a bright yellow name tag to wear.

It was the first of several community meetings around the state set up by the COGCC, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Division of Wildlife to present and gather input on the pre-draft of proposed rules that would change oil and gas drilling practices in Colorado.

In response to complaints from citizens and communities affected by oil and gas drilling, special 2007 legislation directed three state organizations to write the new regulations. For instance, the pre-draft Rulemaking Proposal to Implement HB 1298 and HB 1341 includes safety standards such as placing open chemical and water waste pits at least one-half mile away from a residence. Plus, companies will have to notify public health officials about chemical compounds used in drilling operations. Currently, these chemicals are under proprietary secrecy.

PhotobucketActing director of the COGCC, Dave Neslin explained that the pre-draft plan had three components: “First, we are proposing a new drill application approval process that will be managed under a comprehensive plan.”

“Second, the state will collect new data and conduct health studies on air and water qualities,” Neslin said, “And third, there will be additional regulations to protect the environment, wildlife and public health.”

Margaret and Bill White came to hear about the health concerns. They retired on some property east of Parachute, but they didn’t buy the mineral rights below the surface, so they have had no control of oil and gas development on their property.

Photobucket“We’re on a country road that was not built for the big rig trucks going up and down it all day and night,” Margaret complained. “We finally had to unplug our touch lamp in the bedroom because when trucks went by, the rumbling kept turning the light on in the middle of the night.”

Bill noted that he can see six rigs from his home. “I get my water well tested for chemicals (from drilling activity) every year. No sense waiting until you’re sick to find out your well went bad like what happened south of Silt, “he said, referring to when EnCana’s drilling with hydraulic fracking fluids contaminated water wells in 2001 with carcingen benzene. Fracking or hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand and the chemicals into gas wells to loosen rock and optimize the flow of gas.

The Whites were interested that the COGCC pre-draft proposal had the energy companies testing and monitoring domestic water wells near drilling sites.

PhotobucketTim Sarmo, the town administer for Palisade, asked commission representatives to move drilling activities at least 5 miles from the public water resources.

“We all use energy, but we all drink the water, too,” Sarmo testified.

Business people came to warn the COGCC representatives that regulations could make the industry leave Colorado.

Bob Madden from Parachute ran the local Holiday Inn Express  Express and the owner had plans to develop three more hotel properties in Rifle, investing millions in the local community.

“The company I work for may wonder if they should continue,” Madden cautioned, “if it appears the state wants to drive these oil and gas companies away.”

PhotobucketWilliams Production employee Sandy Pollard expressed concern for the seniors living off their royalties, paying for their nursing home care.

“New rules could hamper their royalty payments,” she said.

In all, about an equal amount of people supporting the rules changes testified in the special meeting as the number of dissenting yellow-tagged industry representatives and supporters.

The presentation of the pre-draft COGCC oil and gas proposals for public input will continue in Trinidad, Wray, Durango and Greeley in January. Stakeholder meetings with the industry will be set up in Denver. The  new regulations need to be in place by July 1.

Rich Alward, the COGCC board member from Grand Junction, viewed the proceedings from the sidelines.

“We can do better when it comes to energy development,” he emphasized. “But it’s the pressure from the local communities that will eventually drive the industry to do what’s right.”

Photos: Top: The room was packed with a standing-room-only crowd. Second: Dave Neslin from the COGCC. Third: The Whites listen intently during the hearing. Fourth: Palisade town manager Tim Sarmo. Bottom photo: Sandy Pollard from Williams Production. Photos by Leslie Robinson