GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Garfield County Commissioner Trési Houpt says she will run again in 2010 despite what she expects will be a double target on her back because she’s the lone Democrat on the board and she also serves on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
Houpt has a reputation for bucking her Republican counterparts on the three-member county commission when it comes to the environment versus the oil and gas industry, and as a member of the COGCC she helped draft the most stringent drilling regulations in the nation — a political issue already shaping the 2010 election on the state level.
Houpt told The Colorado Independent last week she is merely trying to strike a balance between energy development and the state’s outdoor recreation and tourism industries, as well as protect public health.
“We have some long-term economic interests and people who need to be protected, so for me air quality and water quality and protection of public health and wildlife are very important, and that is widely known,” Houpt said. “So if the industry decides that they don’t like that type of leadership to be brought forward on the local level, then I’m sure they’ll put some money into challenging me.”
Houpt is a two-term county commissioner seeking a third term in 2010 — there are no term limits in Garfield County — and she said she wouldn’t be surprised if the oil and gas industry pumps the same unprecedented amount of money into this race as it did in 2008, when shady 501(c)(4) nonprofit groups and 527s attacked two Democratic candidates.
Republican operative Scott Shires and his Aurora-based Colorado League of Taxpayers was fined $7,150 after Colorado Ethics Watch registered a complaint that the group failed to properly file an electioneering communications report for spending $2,300 to successfully defeat Democratic former judge Steve Carter.
“It’s really unfortunate and I don’t think it helps the oil and gas industry in terms of public relations, but I do anticipate that that probably will happen again this year,” Houpt said, adding that she is working for the large number of Western Slope residents who want to see oil and gas production tempered by environmental protections.
“I’ve been very active locally as a county commissioner making sure that the energy industry understands the concerns of folks who live in Garfield County and recognize that when you’re drilling in the Rocky Mountain region there are certain protections that you need to put in place,” Houpt said.
Carter, still angered by what he deems an illegal hijacking of the 2008 county commissioner election by the oil and gas industry, said Houpt will get it from both barrels in 2010.
“I’m sure they’ve got Trési right in their crosshairs, and I’m sure she’s smart enough to realize that,” said Carter, a Rifle attorney. “The question is will they have as much ability to intimidate voters as they did the last time, and I suspect they won’t because people realize they were lying through their teeth when they were talking about what they were going to be doing and about their plans.
“And I think their credibility is pretty low, even here in the western part of the county [in Rifle].”
Carter says last-minute negative campaigning convinced a large number of oil and gas workers that electing two Democrats — Glenwood Springs blacksmith and artist Stephen Bershenyi was the other Dem on the ticket — to join Houpt would mean an end to all drilling jobs in the county. Many jobs have been lost since then anyway due in large part to the global recession and plunging commodity prices.
Houpt was picked by Gov. Bill Ritter to serve on the legislatively expanded COGCC beginning in 2007. She said the adoption of the new drilling regs in April has been tough for some mineral rights holders and oil and gas workers to swallow during the current downturn.
“I do think that with the economy in a recession at this point, there are a lot of people who are panicking, and there’s a lot of emotion involved in their thought process, and this is one of the things that has been brought to the forefront of people’s concerns,” said Houpt, who was verbally attacked during a mineral royalty owners meeting last month.
“But it’s also a very timely period I believe for us to be looking at how these new rules will play in Colorado, because things have slowed down and it gives us more time to work with the industry to make sure that what is put in place takes care of what it was intended to, and so I see it as a great opportunity for the industry and the state of Colorado.”
But some say wearing two hats can be problematic for Houpt, who has taken a harder stand for environmental protections as a county commissioner than she is often able to take serving on the COGCC.
Dr. Geoffrey Thyne, a research scientist for both the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Wyoming who has been hired several times as an independent consultant for Garfield County, said he has been pressured by industry interests to find in their favor and therefore understands the heat Houpt must take at times.
“She has a conflict of interest,” Thyne said. “She was a very strong advocate of environmental safety while she was a county commissioner, and so being appointed to the state board, which I think was a good idea, sort of ties her hands on county issues, and so she’s tried to remain very carefully neutral.”
That was the case with COGCC meetings going on today and Wednesday in Glenwood Springs, when Houpt had to defer to the county attorney on the agenda because she has had to recuse herself as a county commissioner on such topics as the West Divide Creek seep and the Project Rulison blast site.