COGCC defends publicity of major fines in oil and gas spill enforcement cases

The Roan Plateau (U.S. Department of the Interior photo).

As the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) works to catch up on a backlog of old spill enforcement cases dating back several years, the method by which the state regulatory agency publicizes any fines that are levied against operators has become a topic of conversation for conservation groups tracking the industry.

An informal survey of environmental watchdog groups conducted by the Colorado Independent found that opinions vary on the degree of transparency on spill enforcement cases provided by Colorado regulators.

The Garden Gulch spill icefall.
One representative of an environmental public relations firm who asked not to be identified said the COGCC does a much better job of posting information about industry violations on its website than neighboring New Mexico and Wyoming but that Colorado comes up way short of the steps taken by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

For starters, Pennsylvania actually produces press releases on major enforcement cases when a significant fine is levied against an oil and gas company. Colorado does not currently produce press releases on such matters.

Pennsylvania also clearly posts the releases in its “Newsroom” section on its website. The COGCC offers navigation tips, statistics and other frequently requested data in its “News and Media” section on its website.

Pennsylvania also disseminates its press releases on major fines through PRNewswire, a service with a wide reach in an increasingly resource-strapped media industry. For example, a press release went out June 28 on a state fine of $180,000 against Chief Oil & Gas LLC for a hydraulic oil spill and failure to properly maintain a drill pit in Somerset County, Pa.

By comparison, settlement agreements were reached June 23 with Berry Petroleum ($173,000) and Marathon Oil ($143,350) for hydraulic fracturing fluid and other drilling fluid spills into Garden Gulch on Colorado’s Roan Plateau beginning in late 2007.

Rather than issue a press release to all Colorado media, COGCC executive director David Neslin informed the Colorado Independent – because of a previously expressed interest – that the agreements had been posted on the COGCC website. However, this is the process for finding the information on the website:

“On the menu, click on Hearings. Then click on the 2010/2011 Fiscal Year. Then click on the April 28, 2011 date in the Applications Due column for the June 27 Hearing Date. Then scroll down to the bottom of that page for the Berry and Marathon enforcement matters and click on the Staff Recommendation items. This will take you to the two proposed settlements.”

Critics of the COGCC claim the somewhat buried nature of the information is part of an overall effort to obscure such violations and subsequent fines from public scrutiny. They also say taking more than three years to settle such clear-cut cases also plays into industry hands.

“It serves industry in delaying the justice,” said Steve Torbit, regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. “It also distracts and makes the public picture very fuzzy so the public is out of the loop to a large degree and unable to say [the COGCC] is serving the public interest.”

Torbit argues that less publicity of major enforcement actions by the state is exacerbated by the diminished capacity of the media to search out such information during the current economic downturn.

“[Lack of media coverage and resources] is a huge concern to us because the media has always been sort of the enforcer of the public’s right to know, and with diminished journalist oversight, things like Garden Gulch and some of the other numerous spills don’t even appear on the last page of the paper or at the end of the newscast,” Torbit said.

However, Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the COGCC, counters that there is ample public notice of major spills, enforcement actions and fines levied in Colorado against oil and gas operators.

“Notices of settlement are posted prior to monthly hearings on the COGCC’s website, and the website also typically includes copies of the proposed settlement agreements or orders finding violation,” said Hartman, a former environmental reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News in Denver. The matters are discussed in open meetings, and streamed live to anyone with an Internet connection. Final orders are likewise posted on the site.”

Hartman, who did acknowledge there is an ongoing in-house discussion about producing and disseminating press releases on fines against the industry, went on to point out that any member of the media interested in such matters can communicate directly with Neslin.

“The COGCC director engages in direct outreach with those seeking more information on settlements and provides copies of public documents upon request,” Hartman said. “Violations and subsequent enforcement actions are also included in the compendium of statistics which are included in the monthly staff reports, also posted on the COGCC website. Finally, the director and staff periodically report on the status of enforcement matters at COGCC meetings, which, as noted, are streamed live on the Internet.”

Leslie Robinson, a Garfield County resident and community activist with the Grand Valley Citizen Alliance, said her concern is more that the actual fines are far too low and don’t meaningfully punish oil and gas operators for polluting local water sources.

“Marathon paid a fine of only about a dime per gallon for draining over 1 million gallons of chemically contaminated drilling and fracking flow-back waste into local creeks and the Colorado River near Parachute,” said Robinson, a former journalist who first covered the Garden Gulch cases for Colorado Confidential (now The Colorado Independent) in early 2008.

“The COGCC didn’t inflict any pain — except for a couple of days of bad PR. Really, what’s a hundred thousand dollars or two to this behemoth industry? That’s the cost of a Christmas party.”

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