Challengers take incumbent Garfield commissioners to task over O&G mitigation fund spending
The three challengers aiming to unseat the incumbents in the two Garfield County commissioner races this fall take issue with the use of energy impact mitigation funds to challenge new oil and gas rules being approved by the state.
Though their reasons differ some, the trio tends to agree that those dollars might be better spent in looking beyond the natural gas industry as the county’s cash-cow headed into the future.
Democrat Leslie Robinson is challenging three-term incumbent Republican Mike Samson for the District 3 seat in the Nov. 3 election. Meanwhile, six-term incumbent Republican John Martin is in a three-way race for the District 2 seat against Democrat Beatriz Soto and unaffiliated candidate Brian Bark.
Samson and Martin have both defended the unanimous Garfield Board of County Commissioners’ decision to allocate $1.5 million from the county’s special energy mitigation fund to steer and, when they deem necessary, fight the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Senate Bill 181 rule-making process.
“The rules and regs that the COGCC is contemplating and accepting are meant to protect people,” said Robinson, a longtime critic of the oil and gas industry and chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance.
“People’s health is being affected by oil and gas operations nearby,” she said. “It’s all of the unfairnesses added up over the years that led to groups like ours that want tighter regulations so that people’s health is protected.”
Those regulations aren’t even in place yet, and the oil and gas industry is already suffering from a downturn in global markets, Robinson noted.
“These regulations have nothing to do with that downturn at all,” she says, countering commissioners Samson, Martin and Tom Jankovsky, who’ve said the impending regulations are part of the reason energy companies are pulling out of Garfield County.
“The Piceance Basin is an expensive place to drill for gas,” Robinson said of the western Colorado formation that holds vast natural gas reserves. “There’s much higher overhead, and they cannot compete in the world market.”
To spend money to try to save an industry that’s “on the wane,” as she states it, “doesn’t seem to be a very effective purchase.”
Instead, those funds should be put toward efforts to diversify the county’s economy and prepare for a future without as much gas production, Robinson said.
“We really haven’t tried to diversify the economy, because we’re so tied to oil and gas,” she said. “We have a lot of potential here. We just haven’t fostered it enough.”
Soto agreed, and said taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used to defend a particular industry.
“The way I see it, the industry should be defending itself,” she said. “Those funds should not be from the community. We should not be paying that bill.”
The new regulations are also about recognizing the impacts fossil fuel extraction has on the environment and in contributing to climate change, Soto said.
“The American people are holding these industries accountable and ensuring that they have the least amount of side effects,” she said.
As the energy landscape changes, Garfield County should invest in future technology, such as renewable energy resources, Soto said.
“We should be investing those monies in developing other sources of income,” she said. “We need to start building the small businesses we have and attracting new ones, and be on the forefront.”
When it comes to new businesses, the outdoor industry presents opportunity, Soto also offered.
“When it comes to attracting industries, we should align that with our lifestyle, and being surrounded by public lands, and intentionally seeking out those industries,” she said.
Bark says he’s “pro oil and gas,” but he also sees a need to invest in a future that’s not as reliant on the boom and bust cycles that have defined the energy industry.
“It’s a good revenue source, but there has to be an endgame here,” Bark said. “At what point do you quit throwing good money after bad?
“Why can’t we take some of that money and look at other sources of revenue,” he said of the energy mitigation dollars. “We have to get something in Garfield County that’s a stable source of revenue, and that’s not boom and busting.”
Bark also said Garfield County should look to the other energy-producing counties it has formed a coalition with to share in more of the cost to be part of the rule-making efforts.
“That’s my concern,” he said. “I’m not necessarily opposed to the lawsuit and fighting what’s going on, but I haven’t seen the data to justify it.”
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