Report: GarCo oil and gas dept. tiny despite growing complaints, workload

Despite a growing number of complaints from Garfield County residents about the environmental impacts of natural gas drilling, the county department charged with addressing those issues is one of the smallest and least staffed, according to the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.

The paper reports that the oil and gas liaison’s department did add an employee in 2009 (from two to three) and will see a tripling in its budget from 2008 to 2010, if its proposed budget for next year is approved. But a key hydrologic study to check for contaminants from gas drilling in the Mamm Creek area was slashed from $180,000 to $20,000 in 2009.

That study is part of an ongoing effort to investigate findings from a private consultant that show elevated levels of methane in groundwater supplies since the most recent gas boom began in the late 1990s. There also is a push for more federal regulation of certain drilling practices in the wake of complaints from residents that their groundwater wells are being contaminated and they’re being sickened by gas drilling.

Oil and gas liaison officer Judy Jordan told the paper she was perplexed by the rising number of complaints given the drop-off in drilling in the county (from 70 active rigs a year ago to 16 currently operating). That slowdown is widely attributed to the global recession and drop in the commodity price, but some Republicans say it’s directly linked to more stringent state environmental regulations for gas drilling that went into effect in the spring.

GOP candidates in the 2010 governor’s race have been railing against Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter for pushing through the new regs, but many residents of Colorado’s oil and gas country, including heavily drilled Garfield and Weld counties, say the state doesn’t go far enough in regulating the industry. Still, it’s a clear campaign issues for Republicans Scott McInnis and Josh Penry, both vying for the GOP nomination to run for the governor’s office in 2010.

“America is facing a painful recession, and this Governor’s policies have made a bad economic situation worse,” Penry writes in his most recent campaign fund-raising newsletter, blasting the “stifling oil and gas regulations [that] have done nothing to help get our economy turned around.”

Whatever the causes the latest natural gas downturn (or some would say bust), Garfield County’s Jordan said the number of drilling permits her department is seeing forwarded from the state for county review continues to go up.

“I got 300 on one day, Sept. 17,” she said. “It’s just a lot more time consuming.”

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