COGA withdraws lawsuit challenging state’s highly politicized revised drilling regulations

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) today withdrew its lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission over the process that led to the state’s revised and still hotly debated oil and gas drilling regulations that went into effect in 2009.

In a joint release from COGA, the state’s oil and gas industry lobbying group, and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, officials said the dismissal of the lawsuit stemmed from talks between COGA board members and newly appointed Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King.

Even during the 2010 midterm elections, the new, more environmentally friendly drilling regs — which give higher priority to air and water quality, wildlife habitat and public safety — were held up by some Republican candidates as job-killing and unnecessary rules that were forcing the industry out of the state. Democrats and most state regulators countered that the industry was slumping due to the global recession, not the more balanced drilling regs.

COGCC director David Neslin previously told The Colorado Independent that industry complaints were on the wane as permit backlogs were being cleared up. State wildlife officials last summer announced a comprehensive wildlife mitigation plan — agreed to by the state’s top drilling outfits — that would streamline that process. Still, the COGA suit, which focused on what the industry group claimed was a flawed approval process, loomed over the public debate.

“This heralds what we hope will be a new era of collaboration and predictability in the development of our energy resources,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said in the release. “It’s important to get beyond old fights and move ahead to develop Colorado’s abundant natural gas and protect our environment at the same time.”

Newly elected COGA Chairman Scott Moore, of Anadarko, echoed the sentiments of Hickenlooper, a former geologist: “Abundant, affordable, clean burning natural gas is a cornerstone of Colorado’s energy, economic, and environmental solutions moving forward. The Hickenlooper administration clearly recognizes this and is committed to a balanced and engaged dialogue moving forward.”

Some are afraid the new administration may be too friendly with the state’s oil and gas industry. That fear was not assuaged by comments Hickenlooper made recently in The New York Times: “We should drill the living daylights out of natural gas and cut regulation.”

Administration officials quickly tried to explain that statement, but to some residents of heavily drilled areas like Garfield County, the new administration’s stance is somewhat worrisome.

“It has to be,” said Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens, a grassroots activist group that’s fighting a proposed Antero Resources drilling project in Battlement Mesa, a retirement community in Garfield County.

“It scares the hell out of the people who are more politically inclined than we are, and they’re the folks who are helping us and guiding us, and you can certainly see the same political maneuvering going on in Garfield County with a new commissioner coming onboard [Republican Tom Jankovsky] who’s very much like [pro-drilling Republican] John Martin and the antithesis of [Democrat and former COGCC member] Trési Houpt.”

Houpt was voted out of office as a county commissioner in November, mostly because Jankovsky won the jobs argument and convinced voters there are too many state and county regulations impeding the industry. Devanney, however, said many people in Battlement Mesa don’t want to totally shut down drilling. They’re just worried that companies are increasingly eyeing densely populated areas.

“We are not anti-drilling per se,” Devanney said. “We just don’t like where they’re drilling. We need the natural gas, we need the energy, we need the jobs and the economic benefit to Garfield County – and most operators recognized that it’s not a good idea to develop the Battlement Mesa minerals.”

Garfield County officials recently told state that the revised COGCC rules don’t go nearly far enough in protecting area residents from the potential health risks of natural gas drilling.

Still, COGA President and CEO Tisha Conoly Schuller said she’ss glad negotiations with the state led to the withdrawal of the lawsuit: “The new administration clearly recognizes the valuable contribution Colorado’s oil and gas industry makes to the economy and the importance of Colorado natural gas in reducing air pollution. We are confident that going forward we will have a place at the table and our concerns will be fairly considered.”

The controversial Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act is designed to reduce Denver-area smog and create more of a local market for Colorado natural gas with the shuttering of several aging Xcel Energy coal-fired power plants along the state’s Front Range and their conversion to natural gas, which burns about 50 percent cleaner than coal. Some Republicans have been critical of that bill as well.

“The administration promised only to listen to all sides in making decisions,” King said in the release, indicating the state made no promises or commitments. “Colorado cannot effectively address the challenges of the future unless everyone is working collaboratively, and litigation is not the best way to achieve that goal. We are happy this litigation is over.”

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