COGCC listens, gets a pretty good earful on oil and gas issues at Glenwood Springs hearing
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission brought its ears to Glenwood Springs on Wednesday, but not without some criticism for not allowing extra ears and eyes on its afternoon field tours into the western Garfield County gas patch.
Representatives of several industry watchdog groups criticized the COGCC this week for not allowing the public to tag along on field trips to view natural gas facilities.
“Whenever there’s a quorum of (commission members) gathered, the public should have the opportunity to hear and see what you see,” Leslie Robinson, chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said in her comments to commissioners at the Wednesday morning listening session at the Hotel Colorado.
Robinson was joined by other activist groups from the Western Slope in penning a letter to the COGCC ahead of this week’s meetings in Paonia on Tuesday and Glenwood Springs asking why the three field visits that were also planned are not open to the public.
“It is our understanding that the purpose of the tour is to educate Commissioners so as to inform their future decision-making, which includes questioning (COGCC) staff on the operations of wellsites,” the groups wrote, making a case that the visits should be open to the public.
A response from Colorado Assistant Attorney General Lauren Mercer on Monday indicated that no business was being conducted during the site visits, and that they were “educational” in nature. She cited a 2004 Colorado Supreme Court ruling out of Costilla County that such “briefings” are not convened for policy-making purposes, and are not subject to Colorado open-meetings law.
Allyn Harvey of Carbondale, who works in communications with several of the groups involved in the complaint, also addressed the COGCC in Glenwood on Wednesday.
He said he believes the commission is in violation of the Colorado Open Meetings Act for providing notice of a meeting where information is provided that could be used in future deliberations and decisions on oil and gas matters.
Notice was provided for field tours near Battlement Mesa on Wednesday, as well as Gunnison County on Tuesday and Jackson County on Thursday, along with the public hearing sessions in Glenwood and Paonia.
Natasha Leger from Citizens for a Healthy Community in the North Fork Valley raised similar concerns during the Paonia hearing.
Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment attorney in Denver and president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, agreed with the groups that the COGCC is in violation of open-meetings laws by not allowing the public on the tours.
“For this Commission to publicly notice these meetings — at which they are discussing among themselves and with their staff the operations of regulated entities, to better inform the Commission’s future decision-making, but prohibit the public from attending — is a clear violation of Colorado’s Open Meetings Law,” Zansberg said in an email to the Post Independent.
Zansberg was also involved in the Costilla County case that was cited by Mercer, and said it’s not applicable to the COGCC question.
That case dealt with the county commissioners being invited by independent convenors to a gathering, which Zansberg had argued should be noticed as a meeting of the board.
“The case has absolutely no application to the present situation where the Commission itself has convened the meeting and has publicly noticed it as one subject to (open-meetings laws),” Zansberg said.
In giving notice, the Commission acknowledges that it is discussing matters that relate to its policy-making function, he said.
Mercer, in her response, also noted that the site visits were on private property, and that the COGCC did not have authority to allow public access.
Among other matters addressed before the COGCC at the Wednesday hearing, county commissioners from Garfield and Rio Blanco counties implored the Commission to consider the local economic impacts of new regulations.
“We’re at a slowdown on the Western Slope … at a time when we should be seeing an uptick,” Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said.
He cited higher natural gas prices, which he said is driving new gas drilling in Wyoming and other neighboring states.
Jankovsky said the new rules and regulations that grew out of Colorado’s Senate Bill 181 rulemaking process did not consider rural Colorado interests.
“There are differences in technology and with topography, and I feel like your rules and regulations are more for the urban oil industry, not for the rural areas,” he said of the predominance of natural gas in Western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.
Rio Blanco County Commissioner Gary Moyer offered similar concerns, and said the new rules are impacting the county’s standard of living, which relies on energy development.
Nina Anderson, operates Express Employment Services in Grand Junction and Montrose, and matches workers to jobs in the gas industry, said the COGCC should trust landowners to work with industry on best practices.
“We live off of this land, not just work and play on it,” said Anderson, whose family is also a landowner that works with gas operators. “We will treat this land right when given the opportunity.”
Rifle-area resident Lulu Colby told the commission she will fight plans by Terra Energy Partners to develop new natural gas wells near her home on Mamm Creek “tooth and nail.”
Colby said she’s not convinced the new rules won’t be circumvented, leading to threats to water supplies, wetland and wildlife.
“You can and must stop the march of high-density oil and gas development. Please regulate, don’t foster,” she said in reference to the COGCC’s mission change that grew out of SB-181, requiring the Commission to regulate the industry to protect the public health, safety and welfare, and not “foster” oil and gas activity, as was the COGCC’s previous mission.
Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or email@example.com.
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