Garfield County Commission District 3 candidates offer voters stark contrast on energy development
Amid growing concerns over economic forecasts, Garfield County voters face a tough question: Will the region’s natural gas industry recuperate or should more economic diversification be the solution?
Incumbent Commissioner Mike Samson, a longtime Republican commissioner and avid supporter of the natural gas industry, seeks to maintain the District 3 commission seat he’s held for the past 12 years. Leslie Robinson, a Democrat and a longtime Rifle resident who’s spent years advocating for more oil and gas regulations, is his opponent.
One answer to where and how to use additional sources to make up for declines in oil and gas revenues involves “different industries and enterprises,” Samson said at Thursday’s Issues and Answers Forum.
“Among those are the economic development district I’ve worked hard with,” Samson said. “This will enable more federal funds to come in easily for businesses.”
“The small business district association, opportunity zones, enterprise zones… all of these things we have given money to help with economic industry and benefits to all within our county.”
Robinson said she’s not entirely opposed to extractive industries but that there are other small businesses in the county that can help sustain the community during economic turmoil. This includes the American Soda plant in Parachute — “the largest baking soda mine in the United States” — and Osage Garden Greenhouses in New Castle.
“We have to grow from within,” she said. “… I think it’s important to help mom-and-pop retail businesses because they hire more employees than big businesses do. In the case of hemp, we need to grow, process, manufacture and do something with the waste – perhaps burn it for energy.”
Moderator and KMTS News Director Ron Milhorn pressed Robinson on a comment she made last month that it “would be great” if she “had the power to close the oil and gas industry.” Robinson said she was being sarcastic.
“One person, especially someone like me in Rifle, Colorado, has no control over the oil and gas market,” she said. “We’ve got hundreds of ships full of oil and full of liquid natural gas sailing the oceans because there’s nobody to buy it.”
“We have an oversupply of oil and gas and that’s why the markets are going down and that’s why companies in western Garfield County are having problems… they cannot compete.”
Samson said there’s no reason to be sarcastic regarding an industry that’s “helped our county immensely.” The tax base generated from natural gas has helped finance hospitals, schools, fire districts “and on and on and on,” Samson noted.
“With the absence of that (tax base) has hurt us a great deal,” he said. “I agree, the price of natural gas has gone down and that has something to do with it. But when you take someone like Leslie, who fights hard for Senate Bill 181 and goes to every air quality commission and every COGCC (Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission) meeting with a hammer against the companies that have given so much, that’s hurting us. And I’m not giving her a pass on that.”
“That’s a part of the problem there… and it has hurt our county. Our tax revenues have gone down greatly.”
Further speaking against 2019’s Senate Bill 181, which imposed tighter regulations on oil and gas production within Colorado, Samson said he thinks it’s because of the natural gas industry that Garfield County is the best county to live in, not only in the state but perhaps the country. This is a big reason why he supports using federal mineral lease funds to combat new regulations being implemented by the COGCC.
“We have to help those that have helped us so much. Natural gas companies have given a tremendous amount,” he said. “That’s why we’re in such good fiscal shape, is because we have all kinds of reserves… $130 million. But because of the tough times, by the end of next year we anticipate that will be $90 million.”
“I would ask you to find another county that is going to have $90 million in reserves by the end of 2021… we planned forward with this.”
For Robinson, one major example of her work to increase regulation of natural gas development came in 2019.
Ursa Operating Co. was approved to drill 24 new wells within the Battlement Mesa community. Robinson, who chairs the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and is a strong supporter of 2,000-foot setback rules, said she helped “fight hard” to stop the drilling.
“I’ve been representing the people of Battlement Mesa affected by oil and gas less than 1,000 feet away from their homes and neighborhoods,” she said. “The county commissioners did not take into consideration the health and safety of these Battlement Mesa residents.”
“There’s no reason why natural gas companies have to drill within residential areas… there’s plenty of federal land to drill in.”
Watch the full Issues and Answers forum below:
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The three incumbents are declared, and challengers have until Jan. 25 to gather nominating signatures to run for Glenwood Springs City Council April 6.