Battlement citizens’ group worried over impacts of Ursa bankruptcy on taxing districts, operational safety
Jankovsky blames activist groups, SB 181 for company's financial woes
The recent bankruptcy declaration by the natural gas drilling company operating within the Battlement Mesa community and Garfield County’s spending of money to challenge new oil and gas regulations prompted a few political barbs Monday.
Leslie Robinson is the Democratic candidate seeking the west-end county commissioner seat held by incumbent Republican Mike Samson. Robinson joined Battlement Concerned Citizens in expressing worries about back taxes owed by Ursa Resources in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing earlier this month, during public comments at the regular commissioners meeting.
“It’s of special concern to us here in western Garfield County, because of the financial impact to budgets this year,” said Robinson, who also chairs the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and is an outspoken critic of the oil and gas industry and the county’s policies around its support.
Included in the $5.3 million owed to the county is tax funding for the Garfield County Library District, the Garfield 16 School District, the Grand River Hospital District and the Grand Valley Fire District, she said.
Ursa separately owes $500,000 to Battlement Mesa Service Association as part of the approval drilling operations within the unincorporated west Garfield County community.
She also criticized the county for spending $1.5 million in oil and gas mitigation funds to participate in and challenge portions of the ongoing Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s rulemaking related to the implementation of Senate Bill 181.
“It doesn’t make sense for Garfield County to be spending millions of dollars defending the oil and gas industry, which is going through yet another bust,” Robinson said.
That prompted County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who is not up for reelection this year, to fire back that the blame for Ursa’s bankruptcy can be squarely placed on Robinson’s and the two citizen groups’ backs.
“I will put blame for the bankruptcy of Ursa on Battlement Concerned Citizens, and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, and Senate Bill 181. All of those things came into play to put Ursa into Chapter 11,” Jankovsky said.
“You talk about taxpayers, but you don’t say anything about the individuals who lose jobs, and the children who may have to move out of the area, and the poverty down in Battlement Mesa area,” he said. “You do not even address that.”
Robinson noted that specific regulations tied to SB181 — the sweeping bill passed in 2019 that changed the mission of the COGCC and started a lengthy regulatory process — have not gone into effect yet.
Ursa, in its bankruptcy filing, also cited the downturn in oil and gas markets and burdensome contracts for its decision; not just the forthcoming regulations, she added.
“If I had the power to close down the oil and gas industry, that would be great. But even Ursa said it was the national and worldwide markets that caused their bankruptcy,” Robinson said.
Ursa was approved by the county commissioners a few years ago to drill within Battlement Mesa. The plan was opposed by the two citizen groups, primarily due to the proximity of well pads to homes, schools and other buildings and related impacts.
On Sept. 2, Ursa filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, listing some $282.7 million in secured debt, and several million in unsecured debt, including the $5.3 million owed to the Garfield County Treasurer’s Office, and $718,000 owed to Rio Blanco County.
Ursa currently owns 41,000 acres of oil and gas properties in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, and has 579 producing gas wells, according to its bankruptcy court filings.
The company’s chief restructuring officer, Jami Chronister, did indicate in the bankruptcy filing that the taxes Ursa owes will continue to be paid in order to avoid liens being filed by the respective governmental entities on property held by the company.
Others speaking before the commissioners on Monday didn’t appreciate Jankovsky’s comment blaming the citizen groups and SB 181 for Ursa’s dire straits.
“It’s really unfair of you to be blaming Battlement Concerned Citizens,” resident Evelyn Merritt said. “I think Ursa’s poor judgment, and I think perhaps the commissioners’ poor judgment in giving Ursa so much leeway to have their industry so close to homes is where the problem lies.”
“I’m asking you not to spend any more money fighting the 181 rules, just because we need to put those funds into the hands of citizens who have been impacted by this bankruptcy,” added Robinson.
“I urge you to save taxpayers money and stop throwing our money into a black hole, while our special districts are being plummeted by this natural gas bust that has resulted in this bankruptcy.”
Another Battlement resident, Bonnie Smeltzer, offered, “We live here. You have no idea what it’s like to live within 500 feet, or even 2,000 feet, of a gas well pad. It’s a very big insult to say we are a part of the problem for Ursa’s bankruptcy.”
Jankovsky said that the $1.5 million being spent is to ensure that Garfield County, as Colorado’s second-largest natural gas-producing county, has a say when it comes to the rulemaking process, and to challenge any rules the county deems to be damaging to one of its major industries.
“It is crucial that we be in front of the COGCC to make sure out voices are heard,” he said.
Commission Chairman John Martin added that there’s a cost to participating in the public process. “Local governments are paying that price just to have their voice heard,” he said.
A portion of the money being spent to track and respond to the new regulations, about $200,000, has gone toward a multi-county lawsuit against the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission over new emissions rules. The counties lost a recent court ruling in the case, and Garfield County is weighing a possible appeal.
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