Groups want to hasten COGCC director’s exit, call for improved oil and gas oversight

Citing the pending departure of David Neslin, environmentalists are speaking out against the “ongoing parade of regulators” leaving state government to take jobs with the industries they formerly regulated.

Last week, Neslin announced he would be resigning as director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to take a job with the Denver law firm Davis Graham & Stubbs effective March 1. Davis Graham & Stubbs specializes in energy law so when it landed Neslin, the firm crowed about its new hire, saying he would lead “the expansion of its oil and gas and public lands practices.” Neslin is a valued addition who is “a national figure in energy development,” the firm said.

“From our perspective, it’s a sign that the arm’s-length relationship that’s supposed to exist between regulator and regulated may be more akin to an embrace, and that it may be more entrenched than we think,” Jeremy Nichols, energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, told the Colorado Independent. “Some might say this isn’t new, it’s happened many times before. Especially with lawyers and lobbyists, like David Neslin, there seems to be this attitude that they can just bounce back and forth without conflict. Or that once they’re gone, there’s nothing that can be done. Or that the only field someone with the COGCC could ever work in is oil and gas. Or the best one I’ve heard is that even though they’re moving onto industry, or to positions that serve to benefit industry, that somehow they’re still ‘independent’ or even-handed. Regardless of the excuses, it really is time for this behavior to be condemned and for our state government to impose safeguards that ensure head regulators in particular aren’t allowed to use their influence for the financial gain of industry, whether during or after their stint as a regulator. In Neslin’s case, he should be forced to resign immediately. It’s absurd to believe that he can stay head of COGCC for another month and not have a conflict of interest.”

Eighteen conservation and citizen activist groups, and other individuals, wrote a letter to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Department of Natural Resources Director Mike King on Thursday urging the voluntary or forced resignation of Neslin who they say can no longer provide effective oversight.

David Neslin
Neslin was traveling at press time and could not be reached for comment.

In 2007, COGCC expanded its composition from seven members, with five from the gas and oil industry, to nine members, only three from the industry.

Reworking the commission’s board was intended to improve its ability to provide objective oversight, but critics say the perception of conflicts of interest continued.

Jeremy Nichols
Before Neslin, the COGCC’s former director Brian Macke resigned in 2007 to go to work with Delta Petroleum, and he is also now on the board of the Western Energy Alliance, a western oil and gas industry trade group. Matthew Lepore, the state’s former assistant attorney general representing COGCC, recently took a job with the law firm of Beatty and Wozniak, which boasts a client list drenched in oil and gas interests. The former head engineer at the COGCC, Dave Dillon, moved on in 2010 to start his own industry consulting company.

“There is a not-so-proud tradition in Colorado of the revolving door being acceptable, and it is time that stopped,” said Josh Joswick, energy issues organizer with the Durango–based San Juan Citizens Alliance. “While such incidents did not originate with the Hickenlooper administration, they are something that the governor can and should do something about.”

“This isn’t about punishing people that work for the COGCC for moving on to other careers related to the oil and gas industry,” Nichols added. “I get that staff and engineers are best suited for some kind of a career that involves the industry — for example, Dave Dillon. But let’s at least put some checks in place to ensure that these staff and engineers aren’t allowed to use their influence to sway the COGCC, whether it be the commissioners or the staff. And let’s at least ensure that while these people are on the job for the people of Colorado, that they really are on the side of Colorado. It’s anybody’s guess where Neslin’s heart has been for the past few months.”

Colorado Oil & Gas Association CEO Tisha Conoly Schuller said she was not prepared to comment.

Neslin, who was appointed director of the COGCC in November 2007, oversaw the commission during a major surge of energy exploration in Colorado. During his tenure, the COGCC overhauled the state’s oil and gas regulations to strengthen environmental protections and enacted more efficient permit reviews and improvements to other public processes. Neslin worked closely with conservation groups and industry to develop the nation’s strongest chemical disclosure law for hydraulic fracturing.

“While we did not always see eye to eye,” Peter Maysmith, director of Colorado Conservation Voters (which did not sign the letter), told the Colorado Independent last week, “he played a valuable role in shepherding through important reforms that will better protect Colorado’s air, land, and water.”