GOP state lawmaker: ‘Pitchforks about to come out’ over drilling regulations

<em>Rep. Bradford, R-Colburn (Rocky Mountain News/Flickr)</em>
Rep. Bradford, R-Colburn (Rocky Mountain News/Flickr)

State Rep. Laura Bradford says ranchers and landowners in and around Grand Junction and Mesa County are enraged by new, more environmentally stringent drilling regulations keeping them from fully developing their oil and gas mineral rights.

“Our stance is the erosion of private property rights has gotten to the point that the pitchforks are about to come out here,” Bradford, a Republican from Collbran, said of the political ramifications of the drilling regs that went into effect in April. “Don’t underestimate some of these old-time, family… farmers and ranchers. The tension is ratcheting upwards about the frustration with the erosion of private property rights.”

Specifically, Bradford, the freshman lawmaker who last November ousted presumptive House Speaker Bernie Buescher, a popular Grand Junction Democrat, is upset about wildlife-protection provisions of the new rules. The stunning defeat of Buescher, now Colorado’s secretary of state, was virtually the lone bright spot for Republicans who suffered widespread defeat at the polls in 2008.

But frustration over the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) rules and overall anger stemming from the anti-business policies of the Democratic governor and Democrat-controlled statehouse could propel Republicans back into power, Bradford said, at least on the Western Slope.

A caucus of Republican lawmakers Bradford calls “the pro oil-and-gas coalition” fought to eliminate several paragraphs of the 176-page rules and regulations, she said, because they gave the state Division of Wildlife too much power to restrict drilling on private property in order to preserve wildlife habitat.

“It was a great disappointment to end the session not having had the opportunity to discuss those specifically, just those few, and look at ways that we could either adjust them, push them, or move them out,” Bradford said.

“Outside of the state we have suffered and our reputation has been tarnished and bruised by this governor, by the legislation that he not only endorsed but ultimately signed that is eroding what we once had as a very open arms, open door policy of welcoming businesses to this state,” added Bradford, who owns a medical equipment company and whose husband ranches atop the Grand Mesa east of Grand Junction.

But other ranching lawmakers say the State Legislature did the right thing imposing some of the most demanding drilling regulations in the nation. State Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Democrat from Gunnison, has helped the oil and gas industry carry some legislation, but she supported the COGCC regs.

“The way the rules work is it sets up a process for that discussion to occur to try to find a better location so that you don’t eliminate that critical wildlife habitat,” Curry said of restricted surface occupancy areas that require alternative locations for drilling pads to avoid disturbing critical wildlife habitat. The Division of Wildlife must approve alternative locations, and their decision can be appealed.

In the case of sage grouse, a bird environmentalists have sued to have listed under the Endangered Species Act, Curry said it’s in the best interests of the ranching community to avoid disturbing their habitat and having the bird listed.

The topic of what one landowner described as a “takings,” or regulatory land grab by the Division of Wildlife that prevented him from developing mineral rights on his property in North Park, came up at a contentious royalty-rights meeting Curry attended earlier this month. She said it was a hostile and decidedly counterproductive environment.

“I think it is an indication, though, of the future,” Curry said of what will likely be the dominant issue on the campaign trail in 2010. “This was a ‘heads up, Rep. Curry, every time you set foot in public, you’d better be able to explain what you’ve done [regarding the drilling regs] and the reasons for it,’ so in a way this was good, because now I know.”

Curry said blindly pandering to one interest group at the expense of another won’t fly in the coming election, which already appears to be taking shape 16 months out.

“It’s just a diverse region, the whole Western Slope, and you do run the risk if you take one position that’s fairly extreme on one side then you lose the support of a big voter group on the other side,” Curry said, adding Republican gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Congressman Scott McInnis kept things civil at the same meeting, where some in the crowd called Curry and others “Demon-crats.”

“Congressman McInnis was very gracious, and he did not take the bait on any of that,” Curry said. “He would run a good campaign, and it’s the 527s [tax-exempt political issues groups] that take it to a level that the candidate wouldn’t do.”

Bradford said much will depend on the economy leading up to the November 2010 elections.

“The central issue, depending on what happens in the next 14 to 16 months, is going to be jobs and the economy,” Bradford said. “So this plays into that in the respect of how many jobs did we lose because of the regs, and nobody knows that quite honestly, and neither side is ready to try to estimate that.”

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