Colorado’s new Department of Natural Resources head talks oil and water

Dan Gibbs: 'We need to look at ways we can protect people, protect the environment, and people’s way of life.'

Dan Gibbs at his desk in Denver on March 5, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Hundreds of men and women who work in the state’s oil and gas fields flocked to the state Capitol this week to protest a bill that, if passed, will impose dramatic changes on the way oil and gas drilling is conducted in Colorado. Workers filled the halls of the Capitol ahead of what ended up being a 12-hour committee hearing on the proposed legislation. Many who lined up to testify said they feared the new regulations would end up costing them their jobs.

Also waiting to testify was Dan Gibbs, the newly appointed executive director for the Department of Natural Resources. The 43-year-old from Breckenridge will play a key role in guiding oil and gas regulators — who work in his department — through any regulatory changes. The bill, which is expected to win approval of the Democrat-controlled legislature and Gov. Jared Polis, calls for landmark regulatory changes, including elimination of the mandate that state regulators foster oil and gas development.   

Gibbs, a former county commissioner and state lawmaker, has made it clear that he supports the bill, especially a provision that would give local communities more say in permitting decisions. Current Colorado law says that responsibility for regulating fracking falls to the state. Still, several cities across the Front Range have sought in vain to control drilling within their borders, including outright bans. As a state representative, Gibbs helped strengthen regulations over oil and gas, sponsoring a bill to protect wildlife from drilling impacts. He brings his more regulation-focused perspective to the department on the heels of a record production year for the $31-billion industry.

During his testimony, Gibbs said he heard similar fears of job cuts when he was a lawmaker working on oil and gas bills. 

“We didn’t see any evidence of any job loss as a result of these bills. In fact, there was an increase in activity from 2007 to what we see now,” said Gibbs, who was sitting next to Erin Martinez, a survivor of the Firestone explosion in April 2017. Her husband and brother were killed. 

Gibbs grew up rafting, fly fishing, skiing and ultrarunning. He wears a sports watch and carries his wildland firefighting red card at all times. He worked for former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall in Washington, D.C., served as a state representative before being appointed to the Senate by a vacancy committee, and has been elected Summit County commissioner three times.

The Department of Natural Resources, made up of 1,465 employees, oversees drilling, mining, water management and state parks in Colorado. In addition to navigating changes to Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission [COGCC], the body that regulates and promotes oil and gas development, he will also be responsible for another urgent challenge: trying to figure out how to pay for the Colorado Water Plan. The plan, which will cost an estimated $100 million a year to implement, is part of a solution to avert projected water shortages due to population growth, climate change and obligations to other states and tribes that rely on the Colorado River.

This story is part of a series of ongoing conversations with key cabinet heads inside the new Polis administration. Find our interviews with Will Toor, of the Colorado Energy Office, here, and Kate Greenberg, of the Department of Agriculture, here. We spoke to Gibbs before Tuesday’s marathon Senate Transportation and Energy committee hearing, and again afterward. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

You spend a lot of time outdoors. Is there anything you’ve seen that for you really exemplifies climate change?

In 2009, I was fighting the Old Stage Fire in Boulder County during the second week of January on the first day of the legislative session…

That’s when former Gov. Bill Ritter was giving his State of the State address.

Yeah, he actually mentioned me. ‘As we speak, Dan Gibbs in on the fire line.’ Never did I think I would be fighting a fire in Colorado in January. But that just shows how clearly things are changing. You know, in Summit County, we have 156,000 acres of dead trees as a result of the mountain pine beetle. It was like a slow-moving tsunami, moving from Grand County into Summit County. … I mention this because the mountain pine beetle is a situation of climate change where the winters historically have not been cold enough.

A Crestone Peak oil and gas operation on County Line Road on the Weld County side. The site contains 16 wells, 40 oil tanks, 26 combustors, 17 separators. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group.)
A Crestone Peak oil and gas operation on County Line Road on the Weld County side. The site contains 16 wells, 40 oil tanks, 26 combustors, 17 separators. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group.)

What do you think the economic impacts of oil and gas drilling in Colorado are?

There can be a balance with doing things in a more environmentally friendly way while recognizing the economic impacts of having oil and gas industry do well in Colorado. I don’t think it’s either-or. I worked on a bill that added a higher level of wildlife protections for oil and gas. … I was in the committee room. It was packed full of sportsmen wearing camo and blaze orange. And I also had support from oil and gas industry. At that time they were willing to be supportive of this particular bill, believe it or not. As a local government person, formerly as a county commissioner, county commissioners are in charge of looking at health, safety and welfare of people that live in that community and visit. … If someone wants to build something they have to go through a planning process to get approval. If they want to mine something — you know we have a lot of historic mines in Summit County — they need to get a [permit]. We have a gravel pit. And people had concerns about the trucks going by their house. Well, we can make sure the rocks are covered. We can mitigate the times of operation. We can make things more doable for people that have to be directly impacted by that.

What about the economic impacts of drilling on industries like the outdoor recreation industry? I’m wondering if you think the economic impacts of drilling and coal mining go beyond just the jobs of the people that are working in the oil fields or the coal mines.

I don’t think we need to pit one industry against another. I wouldn’t even call it the recreation industry because, where I live, it’s the environment that’s the economic driver. So the more we can protect the environment, the more it is beneficial to our economy. And I think that’s reflective of many parts of Colorado.

How do you reconcile those two competing imperatives: to protect the environment, while at the same time protecting an industry that offers good-paying jobs and provides money for your department.

We need to look at ways we can protect people, protect the environment, and people’s way of life. I think oil and gas can do things in a way that is not harmful to people’s health. I think there is a way to do it. I don’t think you need to set up oil and gas wells right next to where people live. I think there are ways to do better environmental monitoring of wells when they are close to where people live or when they are close to critical water storage areas. I think we can do things in a more environmentally friendly way where oil and gas can continue to do business in Colorado while minimizing harming the environment.

The state legislature wants to do way with COGCC’s role of fostering oil and gas development and make it solely a regulatory agency.  What’s your reaction to the bill in the legislature?

I think there should be serious reforms within the structure with how we do things in Colorado. I support this bill, Senate Bill 181. I like having local government have a seat at the table if they want to. … Local governments are in the business of regulating land use issues. I’m shocked that local communities have never had the authority to shape land use decisions as it relates to oil and gas. Depending on many truckloads go through an area, things can be mitigated based on how close [that activity] is to homes, how close it is to critical wildlife areas like sage grouse.

Hundreds of oil and gas workers came to the state Capitol on March 5, 2019 to protest a bill aimed at regulating drilling. (Photo by John Herrick)

You’re going to be over at the state Capitol today. You may end up talking to a number of people who work in the industry who will say ‘I’m going to lose my job’ because of this bill. What are you going to tell them?

I will say that’s not true. There is no evidence to reflect that this bill is trying to shut down industry in any way. What it’s trying to do is balance oil and gas activity with looking at what’s best for people and their communities. It’s not creating necessarily a veto power. It is adding a layer of oversight that doesn’t exist now. New oversight. So I would say that’s just not an accurate statement. But I’m sure we’ll hear that a lot. The industry is important in Colorado. And the bill, as it goes through the process, will have five, six hearings and discussions in the House and Senate and opportunities to amend. It’s not the ending point, but the starting point. The bill will likely change.

I wanted to transition to water. Water projects are funded through severance taxes. And severance taxes are dependent on the production of oil and gas. Would you describe that as a competing mission — on one hand you have these environmental programs that are reliant on an industry that has an environmental impact?

It’s funny you say that. Well, not funny. As a county commissioner, we funded all of our recycling programs through tipping fees at our landfills. The more trash we got, the more programs we could fund for diversion. And so, it’s similar, the more oil and gas activity you have in the state, the more we can fund environmental programs. … I think we need a new strategy in terms of how we fund environmental programs. And not just be dependent on severance funds. Looking at other programs I have: the Parks and Wildlife budget is about 85 percent contingent on hunting and fishing licenses. I’m going to be working on a more sustainable funding source moving forward that is not just contingent on hunting and fishing licenses.

Should people who recreate, like backpackers, pay more to Colorado Parks and Wildlife?

What we have right now for Parks and Wildlife is not sustainable. We need to look at every option on the table. … We really need to be creative to figure out who might be willing to help fund the trail system throughout Colorado and what opportunities exist with new foundations that could help with funding.

What are you doing to come up with a new funding mechanism or revenue stream for the Colorado Water Plan?

I just met with a group of stakeholders. The governor has more or less a line item request of $30 million this year. And that will go along with the [state budget]. And then, on top of that, we have the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s water projects bill, and that’s going to have $20 million associated with that. So we’re going to have $50 million going toward implementation strategies. We need about $100 million [per year] moving forward. I think this is a great place to start. You need a lot of local partners. It’s not just the state flipping the switch. … We have all these folks that are working hard to figure out a plan moving forward. There is talk of a possible ballot question in the future. All options are on the table.

When do you expect the Surface Water Supply Index (SWSI) report [which projects Colorado’s water shortages] to be ready?

Sometime over the summer.

It was supposed to come out years ago. What explains the delay?

I don’t know. But I will tell you that I think moving forward it’s important that we do regular updates to SWSI. Climate change, population growth, and a variety of different factors impact water availability. I think we need to get on a set schedule that gives us updates — I’m not saying every year — but fairly frequently. That will help us set policies going forward.

The Dillon Reservoir. (Photo by John Herrick)

Water shortages are projected in future years and there is no clear way to pay for the water plan. You still have oil and gas and local communities duking it out in the suburbs. There are a lot of pressing issues without easy answers. This job will pay about $160,000, but aside from that, what made you want to take on this challenge?

I think daily about my young kids and the fact that I could be in this position right now and I can shape how we manage natural resources right now, but have an eye on what Colorado will look like in the next generation, in future generations. That really appeals to me. Working for a governor like Jared Polis, I support his vision of protecting the environment, understanding that protecting the environment is the best way that we can protect our economy in Colorado.

What keeps you up at night?

I think about the employees that work here for DNR. We have amazing staff here and ensuring that they are OK in the jobs that they have. But any day I could hear about an oil and gas explosion similar to Firestone. That definitely keeps me up. I worry about hearing about the mountain lion attack in Fort Collins and then looking at strategies that we have to deal with lions. This jobs is so diverse. Folks can call me at two in the morning with catastrophic situations like Firestone.

Someone might call you up and bring you out to the fireline, too, right?

Yeah, exactly. I get nervous about oil and gas. But once it hits summertime, I feel like we are one lighting strike, one unattended campfire, from having a mega-fire in Colorado that would have devastating consequences.

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