Ex-Rep. George: Drilling rules must be uniform across Colorado
Much of what Colorado’s special oil and gas task force seeks to accomplish in striking a balance among local governments, citizens and industry could come down to “best management practices” already in use, according to a Western Slope member of the task force.
But when it comes to the potential for new regulations, West Slope and Front Range interests cannot be separated, said Russell George of Rifle, a former speaker of the Colorado House and ex-director of the state Department of Natural Resources.
“If someone is doing something that’s not necessarily required, but which is working in terms of satisfying surface owners, neighbors and all the other players, then that’s a model we can look to,” George said in an interview following last week’s task force meeting in Rifle.
An example might be when an energy company transports water to a group of well sites via pipeline rather than using multiple truck trips, or consolidating facilities in remote locations.
“You can’t do that everywhere, but it’s maybe not too much to ask operators to show when or how they can do that, or why they can’t,” George said. “But you probably can’t demand it.”
The reason is it could create unfair competition between larger and smaller companies that have different means and technical capabilities to do such things, he said.
That’s also why any new regulations that might come out of the process related to the siting of oil and gas facilities in more populated areas or increasing local controls must be uniform across the state, George said.
“We’ve been listening to folks in the western counties who are telling us we don’t need any more rules, and that’s fine with me,” George added. “But when it comes to rules, they have to be the same for everyone.”
George, who is now president of Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely, shared his views on the work of the task force during a break in the meeting last week, which was only the second to be held on the Western Slope since the task force was formed in early September.
FRONT RANGE TENSION
While most of the 21 members of the task force were chosen by Gov. John Hickenlooper from close to 300 applicants, the governor sought out George specifically because of his past work as a legislator in dealing with oil and gas impacts.
The issues around energy development aren’t new, George said, pointing to conflicts around coal bed methane development in La Plata County in the 1980s and during the past two decades in places like Garfield County, which was once the state’s largest natural gas-producing county.
“There’s really nothing new here, other than this time and place, and the fact that there is more drilling and production,” he said. “The reason there’s so much tension around the issue now is because of the huge population explosion on the Front Range.”
Weld County has since surpassed Garfield in terms of oil and gas production. But the backlash in places like Longmont, Loveland and in neighboring Boulder County as drilling has moved into populated areas has led to an all-out revolt in some jurisdictions.
Hickenlooper called together the task force as a way to stave off several voter initiatives that were headed to the ballot this fall that would have mandated new, more stringent well setbacks and allowed local governments to come up with their own rules or even institute bans on drilling.
George remains optimistic that the group can find some common ground to address the issues.
But there are some stark differences between what’s happening on the Front Range and what’s been happening for many years in Garfield, Rio Blanco and Mesa counties, namely topography, geology and demographics, he acknowledged.
COLLISION OF VALUES
“We’re constantly reminded that the same policy plays differently in different locations,” George said in reference to comments made at last week’s meeting that what may be good for Front Range interests is not necessarily in the best interests for the Western Slope’s energy-producing counties.
The “collision,” as he calls it, is between equally important values — those of energy producers and an energy-dependent economy in many regions of the state, and of citizens who want to be assured their public health and safety are being protected.
Those concerns are the same in Weld County or Battlement Mesa, George said.
“What we’ve found interesting in each of these places that we’ve visited is how people have chosen to deal with it,” he said.
Most of the progress that’s been made on solving some of the conflicts has been done through collaboration between local and state government, operators and citizens, he said.
George said he would prefer to see more of that, rather than “drawing swords and choosing sides, which was happening earlier this year.”
The battleground could still end up being the ballot, George said. But the task force can at least try to find some middle ground in the meantime, he said.
“You do see a lot of people trying to find a way to strike a balance, and are constantly asking where that balance is,” he said. “I would like for us to be able to say we have given this an honest look, and that we are doing everything we can.”
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