The department charged with keeping an eye on Garfield County's oil and gas industry remains among the smallest in county government.
The department this year was expanded from two employees to three, and its proposed budget for 2010, if approved, would be more than three times what it was in 2008, jumping from $165,496 in 2008 to just over $532,000 next year.
By comparison, for the 2009 budget year the department originally was projected to spend $444,223. But at mid-year the county adjusted that amount downward to $218,300, reflecting spending cuts for a number of supplies, use of county motor pool vehicles and other items.
The most significant reduction was $180,000 cut from a planned continuation of a hydrologic study in Mamm Creek, to check for contamination of underground water supplies in the region.
The "2009 projected" column of the budget now calls for the expenditure of only $20,000 on the study this year, with the rest to be spent in 2010.
The county's oil and gas liaison officer, Judy Jordan, has said the study is part of a broad effort to determine whether gas drilling might be involved in what some researchers say is a rising amount of methane in the region's groundwater.
Jordan said on Thursday that she still hopes to have three monitoring wells dug in the Mamm Creek region before the end of the year, and to begin collecting and analyzing data next spring.
The oil and gas liaison department was created in 2003 to act as a go-between among the public, the Board of County Commissioners and the companies working in the oil and gas industry within the county boundaries.
The position initially was demanded by county citizens whose lives had been affected, often in negative ways, by the industry's practices.
The department's continuing mission is largely devoted to receiving and investigating complaints filed by residents about oil and gas industry activities.
The list of complaints has been growing lately, according to reports to the Energy Advisory Board, another go-between for citizens, the industry and county staff. Jordan said she was perplexed by the rising number of complaints, since there are now only 16 gas drilling rigs operating in the county, compared to more than 70 a year ago.
Also high on the list of duties of the department has been the task of monitoring the number of gas-well drilling permit applications submitted to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for lands within Garfield County.
Lately, she said, "the workload that we get from COGCC has increased," with "batches" of applications landing on her desk at a rising rate, despite the fact that the industry in Colorado is in a significant slump.
"I got 300 on one day, Sept. 17," she said. "It's just a lot more time consuming."
And these days, Jordan said, the scope of her duties has broadened somewhat.
"Anything energy-oriented comes this way, at least fossil-fuel oriented," she explained, which includes information about coal and oil shale development schemes.
She said she would like to be able to draw up a coordinated plan for energy development and use for the county, that includes traditional petroleum-based energy as well as geothermal, solar and wind sources.
"We should be a net energy exporter," she said of the county's abundance in all those areas, and the potential for energy conservation efforts.
But to take on such a task would require hiring additional staff, she noted, adding, "There's no plan to expand the department."
The idea of devoting more resources to the department has come up recently.
County Commissioner Tresi Houpt suggested at a recent meeting that some of the $11.6 million the county received from the state - from mineral severance taxes and mineral lease fees associated with Colorado's natural gas boom - could be used to expand the staff and scope of the oil and gas liaison office.
The additional personnel and funding, Houpt explained in a telephone interview on Thursday, could allow the department to better "respond to growing concerns" about possible industry contamination of the environment and other issues.
Houpt said she has asked the county's health department to look into whether more study is needed regarding water and air quality degradation as a result of industry activities.
As for Jordan's department, and whether it should be expanded, Houpt said, "I would have to follow Judy's lead on that."