Reader’s view: Unregulated oil and gas extraction threatens public safety and the industry itself

Ed Marston, the former publisher of High Country News, wrote the following letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. He shared it with The Colorado Independent

Energy development is not abstract to me. I have lived for 41 years within 10 miles of three large underground coal mines that until recently employed 1,000 miners and produced 1.5 percent of the nation’s coal. For 40 years, I heated my house with coal from those mines. Trains carrying that coal to market pass within 0.7 miles of my house. Tragically, those mines are now in terminal decline. More than half of the jobs are gone, with the rest doomed by the enormous changes in fossil fuel energy production and use.

Thanks to intense federal and state regulation, coal mines are excellent neighbors. For over a century, coal mining in my North Fork Valley has not just coexisted with our rural area and public lands, but enhanced them. As a result, we supported the mines and we mourn their passing.

By comparison, oil and gas extraction is so lightly regulated as to not be worthy of the word. As a result, the industry is a threat to the life, limb and health of its workforce and a threat to the physical and mental health of those of us who have the tragic misfortune to live near this rogue industry. It imposes heavy truck traffic on our lightly constructed roads and bridges, it destroys the tranquility and cleanliness of residential areas with industrial activity, and it converts our federal lands into a single, sprawling, industrialized, ugly-beyond-description landscape.

Living in rural areas is not easy. Jobs are few and usually low paid. As a group, we tend to be older, poorer and less well educated than urban and suburban people. Our major compensation for this difficult life is the beauty and recreation potential of the federal lands we live among. But now our federal lands are threatened by industrialization. These lands will be impossible to reclaim not just in my lifetime, but in my grandchildren’s lifetime. Drilling, given present regulations, makes the ruling theme of federal lands – “multiple use” – a joke. You can graze and log and develop water and mine coal underground without violating the principle of multiple use. But oil and gas production represents the expropriation of the land from all other users.

These lands are not just important and valuable to those of us who live among them. People come from around the country and world to hunt and fish and gawk at the mountains. The snowmelt coming off the central Rockies irrigates land that produces fruit, grapes, vegetable and grains. Cattle and sheep graze the mountainsides in the warmer months. We are an amazingly productive place. All this is threatened by the massive industrialization this industry’s present way of operating requires.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is charged by law with the twin fiduciary duties of encouraging the industry and protecting communities and the environment from industry abuses. Instead of balancing its responsibilities, the Commission has become a captive creature of the industry. The irony is that this captivity is causing a reaction that tough but reasonable regulation could avoid. By ignoring the public health and welfare and by failing to protect the wildlands that overlay oil and gas deposits, the COGCC is dooming the industry it seeks to protect.

Regulations that allow drill pads to be placed next to schoolyards, for example, or close to residential areas, or in beautiful wild landscapes guarantee unending opposition from local and eventually national constituencies. If these non-regulatory regulations are made final, the Commission will have set the stage for a fight-to-the-death. Either the industry will destroy our rural areas by making this a barren and unproductive place (except for liquid and gaseous Btu’s), or we will destroy it. The Commission will have given us no alternative.

Governor Hickenlooper, a proponent of drilling, saw this unhealthy fight coming, and tried to head it off by appointing a Task Force to reach a compromise. The Governor’s Task Force failed and judging by its draft regulations, now the Commission has failed. We will soon be back fighting it out through referenda at election time.

As fate would have it, the industry would have been in better shape if the Governor had let the battle go forward last year, when the industry was economically strong and many jobs depended on it. Now the industry has gone bust; gas and oil prices are flat and according to the financial futures market likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Communities threatened by future drilling and communities already damaged by drilling and now economically abandoned by the industry, both have reason to be receptive to strong regulation or outright bans.

If the Commission could understand that tough regulations are in the joint interests of both the industry and the public, it still has time to respond to citizen comments and produce regulations that give local government the power to site pads, to phase in the pace of drilling, to keep drill pads long distances from schools and residences, and so on. Unless the Commission imposes such regulations, it is going to doom the industry. Powerful though the Commission may be, it cannot protect the oil and gas industry from an enraged public.

Photo credit: John Duffy, Creative Commons, Flickr