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Devilish details, deadline face oil, gas task force

A WPX drill rig sits on a site near Parachute earlier this year.
Heidi Rice / Post Independent |

TUESDAY MEETING

The Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force is set to meet from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Tuesday at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. The meeting is to be webcast live at http://bit.ly/1D618s1.

The rubber meets the road in earnest Tuesday when a special 21-member state oil and gas task force is slated to take final votes in Denver on the recommendations it will forward to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Hard “setbacks” or new local powers seem unlikely, while more staffing for regulators has a better chance.

The task force, appointed by Hickenlooper last August to come up with ways to better deal with conflicts between oil and gas development and communities, has a Friday deadline to make its suggestions.

From there, it’s either on to the General Assembly for anything that requires legislation to put into effect, or to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to consider new rulemaking.

As for the task force, after five months of gathering information and hearing from various citizen groups, trade associations and local elected officials from across the state, it all comes down to a required two-thirds-majority vote (14) in order for any of the recommendations still on the table to reach the governor’s desk.

Russell George, a task force member from Rifle who is a former state House speaker and Department of Natural Resources director, said it would be inappropriate to predict which of the three dozen or so suggestions still under consideration will be supported and which ones won’t.

During recent meetings, it became clear that any concrete recommendations around increasing well setbacks or giving more powers to local government in the well permitting process were not likely to have enough support.

Still, elements of those sorts of things are “intertwined” in some of the recommendations that stand a chance of passing, George said.

“I don’t think there will be anything dramatic, and no magic” to address specific issues raised by groups that were backing state ballot proposals before the task force came about, he said.

“I can tell you that, as a group, we really have heard what people are saying, and we are all trying to get to essentially the same place,” George said. “The devil is in the details.”

‘STEP UP PACE’ ON HEALTH

The task force is made up of a broad spectrum of industry representatives, citizen activists, farm and ranch interests, business groups, local elected officials and public health professionals.

Most likely to pass muster with the group are proposals aimed at increasing staffing for state agencies that oversee and regulate the industry.

“There is quite a bit of support for giving the [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] more of what they are asking for to address health concerns,” George said. “And there is certainly a desire to step up the pace when it comes to addressing air and water quality, and noise and other health issues.

“I wouldn’t say we’re in total agreement on how a lot of this will happen … but we have moved the marker on a lot of those issues,” he said.

Group co-chair Gwen Lachelt, a La Plata County commissioner, said it may not be realistic to think it’s “problem solved” when the task force completes its work.

“I’m not going to walk away feeling like we finished our job,” Lachelt said. “You can’t hope to adequately address or resolve an issue that’s been an issue for over 30 years in five months.”

Greeley member Sara Barwinski, who works with the citizens group Weld Air and Water, had proposed a 2,000-foot setback for well pads and other facilities from homes, schools and other occupied buildings, instead of the current 500-foot requirement.

She said in a written statement provided to the Greeley Tribune that she will return on Tuesday with a rewritten version, asking the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to consider rulemaking to “develop the concrete tools they need to do a better job in approving appropriate locations and requiring mitigations that deal with the ‘proximity, intensity and scale’ of multi-well production sites …”

ALL FOR NAUGHT?

In the end, it comes down to what the Legislature decides to do with the recommendations. The task force is only advisory.

In the Legislature, any of the proposals could get killed in committee, watered down or fail to receive funding to carry them out, Barwinski acknowledged.

Leslie Robinson, president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA) in western Garfield County, an affiliate of the Western Colorado Congress, has the same worry.

She said it was painfully apparent in recent task force meetings that “nothing progressive was going to come of it.”

“The task force is pretty weighted toward the oil and gas industry,” she said. “And, if anything progressive does come of it, the Republican-controlled Senate would squash it.

“Even at the Rifle meeting, we felt like we were put through the paces, and for most part the task force collectively turned a deaf ear on the idea of setbacks.”

She said the fight will likely be taken up again on the legislative front, and if that doesn’t work, at the ballot box, which was what Hickenlooper wanted to avoid when he formed the task force.

What the task force process has served to do is mobilize GVCA and other groups with similar, less-extreme sentiments around oil and gas regulation to come up with legislation or ballot language that could win support, Robinson said.

“We’re not the fractivists out there calling for an end to oil and gas,” she said of those more opposed to extractive industry in general.

“We realize we need the energy, but there are certain places where we shouldn’t have this industrial-scale production,” Robinson said.

INDUSTRY CONCERNS

Oil and gas industry groups, meanwhile, have argued for nonregulatory measures to allow operators, local government and citizens to collaborate in finding solutions to some of the issues.

David Ludlam, executive director for West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, was hesitant to speculate on what might come out of the task force proceedings.

Whatever recommendations are forwarded on to the governor will be graded against the association’s “Western Slope Way” white paper that was presented to the task force at its December meeting in Rifle, he said.

“The purpose of the white paper was to have a tool to then grade the outcome based on input from the 15 to 20 entities that contributed to that document,” Ludlam said.

The white paper urges against legislative or regulatory approaches, and instead encourages the task force to consider the merits of “collaborative, problem-solving avenues” to resolve conflicts.

It lists 10 specific tools for county and municipal governments to use, such as establishing memorandums of understanding and operating agreements with energy companies, hiring special liaisons between industry and the public, preparing long-range energy master plans, organizing regional oil and gas forums, and setting up advisory boards with industry and citizen representatives.

“The task force can avoid unnecessary, reactionary recommendations by promoting tools that already exist,” the authors of the white paper said. “This approach will avoid the regulatory chaos that has come to mark a decade of uncertainty and upheaval.”

Dave Devanney represents Battlement Mesa Concerned Citizens, one of the many residential community groups that have argued for greater well setbacks and better ways to document health impacts associated with oil and gas activity.

He said the “West Slope way is the oil and gas way,” and doesn’t always work to give a voice to the citizens and neighborhoods that are impacted.

“What that says is, don’t regulate me, I’ll regulate myself,” he said. “It also says, ‘Front Range, stay over there and leave us alone.’”

Devanney’s and other citizens groups, including the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, have also asked for better local planning around drilling operations within and near highly populated residential areas such as Battlement Mesa, located in western Garfield County.

Even then, “Heavy industrial activity is not compatible in residential areas, no matter how many mitigations there are in those plans,” Devanney said.
Whatever the task force recommends, he said citizens are likely to continue to argue for greater well setbacks and more local control of oil and gas operations.

“From what I’m hearing, it doesn’t look like there will be the two-thirds majority needed on the task force for any changes in regulations,” Devanney said. “There will be a lot of groups and individuals who will be disappointed with that.”

Greeley Tribune reporter Sharon Dunn contributed to this report.


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