Garfield County commits another $293,000 to monitor oil & gas rules implementation

Garfield County commissioners will put up an extra $293,000 to pay off the remainder of this year’s bill in the multi-county Western Slope effort challenging recent changes to the way Colorado regulates oil and gas development.

Commissioners on Monday unanimously agreed to allocate the additional funds for 2020 on behalf of the Western & Rural Local Governments Coalition.

The group of 23 counties and municipalities across the region was led by Garfield County in the months-long effort, as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and state Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) worked to write sweeping new rules under Senate Bill 19-181.

It comes in addition to the roughly $1.5 million already dedicated by the county to be party to the state’s rulemaking process.

The money — part of the county’s oil and gas mitigation funds derived from industry activity in the county — has gone to pay a team of legal, economic and industry consultants who worked to direct, and in some cases legally challenge, the newly approved rules and regulations.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky acknowledged the criticism waged at the commissioners for the expenditure, especially during the recent election for two commissioner seats.

But he called it money well spent, even if the rules didn’t go the coalition’s way in many cases.

“It was a very prudent use of this money,” Jankovsky said. “This is an industry that is not going to die. Natural gas is an inexpensive fuel, it’s abundant and it’s clean.

“As the price of gas goes back up, it’s an industry that will be important to the future of this county … and it was important that we participated and were heard at the table during these hearings.”

SB 181 was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in 2019, changing the mission of COGCC to “regulate,” rather than “foster,” oil and gas development in the state, with a priority on protecting public health, safety and welfare.

Former COGCC Director Matt Lepore, now with the firm Insight Energy Law, has been one of the consultants working on behalf of the coalition. He said during a report to the Garfield commissioners on Monday the 2020 rulemaking process eclipsed what had been the “high water mark” in state rulemaking in 2008, prior to his time with the agency, in terms of writing new regulations that the industry must now adhere to.

The 12 weeks of hearings stretching from July through October resulted in numerous changes, including a new general 2,000-foot setback for well pads and other facilities from homes and occupied structures.

The previous minimum had been 500 feet. The new rules do allow for variances, or “off ramps” as defined by the COGCC, under certain circumstances.

An earlier staff recommendation was for a minimum 1,500-foot setback, but the COGCC opted for the stricter limit as the hearings began over the summer.

“That kicked all of us into overdrive to try to mitigate that potential outcome,” Lepore said.

The fact that the new regulatory language refers to the new setback as a “soft” rather than “hard” rule, and that operators can make a case for something less, was a “win” of sorts, he said.

Language that also allows West Slope operators in particular more flexibility to site facilities based on the unique topography of western Colorado was also a “meaningful win” for the coalition, Lepore said.

And, a provision to allow for better coordination with local agencies on siting of facilities was another positive outcome for local governments, he said.

While the coalition and other government and industry groups that made similar arguments did not win on a lot of points, “we were able to shape the final rules in important ways,” Lepore said.

Government and industry representatives took the opportunity Monday to thank Garfield County commissioners and staff members for taking lead in the rulemaking effort.

“We are a nation of laws, but we are not a nation of regulations,” Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said via Zoom with the Garfield County commissioners. “We could not have done this without the partnerships we have developed over the years.”

West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Chelsie Miera said it was important to have the voice of local governments at the table in addition to industry.

“We were able to identify some workable solutions through collaboration … and obtained some critical changes wins,” she said. “They were not as plentiful as we would have liked to see, but they were important.”

Garfield County’s spending of local oil and gas mitigation funds on the coalition’s efforts to challenge the new regulations has been roundly criticized by activist groups such as the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Battlement Concerned Citizens.

It was also a key campaign issue for the two Democrats challenging Republican incumbent Commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin. Both won reelection in tight races Nov. 3 over challengers Leslie Robinson, who is president of the GVCA, and Beatriz Soto, respectively.

The additional money allocated on Monday toward the coalition efforts will help keep the consultant team in place as the new rules are implemented next year by the COGCC and AQCC.

The regulations, which formally take effect Jan. 15, will also require Garfield and other counties to revise their land-use codes on several fronts to acknowledge the new rules.

That process also began with a presentation Monday by county planning staff of some different options to accomplish that over the coming months, related to the county’s review of facilities such as gas pipelines, storage tanks, compressor stations and staging areas.

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