Officials in Garfield County towns not too concerned about economic fallout from BLM settlement

John Colson
Post Independent Staff

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has agreed to take another look at the potential air pollution from approximately 1,300 oil and gas wells in Garfield County and the surrounding region, essentially putting the projects on hold, local municipal officials say they’re not overly concerned about their towns’ economic futures, at least not yet.

“I’ve seen no red flags,” said Silt Mayor Dave Moore on Tuesday, explaining that he had read about the settlement but had not studied it in detail.

“As long as it’s just reviewing what they did earlier, it’s not going to take too long,” Moore predicted.

But if the review process becomes more involved, or takes longer than a year or so, “then it could become a matter of concern” if the local drilling industry slows down even more than it already has.

Silt was home to 57 oil and gas workers last year, according to the state’s Department of Local Affairs, which has not yet posted numbers for the current year.

DOLA is the state agency that distributes severance tax proceeds paid to the state by the oil and gas industry, and those distributions are based on the number of industry workers living in a given town or county.

Silt Trustee Rick Aluise, reached at his business, noted that a further slowing of the industry’s activities could pose a problem for Silt in terms of severance payments and related issues.

Another local official, Rifle Mayor Jay Miller, said his staff and City Council have not had time to evaluate the possible impacts of the settlement, but he predicted, “We’re going to have to deal with it one way or another.”

He was critical of the organizations that brought the suits, saying, “The group you’re talking about is trying to shut down all [oil and gas] development, and if that happened we’d all be pretty significantly affected,” meaning not just Rifle but the entire region of western Colorado.

He noted that energy development, with its acknowledged periods of boom and bust, has been something that local governments have been dealing with for nearly a century, including the downturn that began about five years ago.

“This is another downturn, and at what point in time there’ll be another uptick, I don’t know. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Miller said.

Rifle, according to DOLA figures, was home to 309 oil and gas workers in 2012.

The announcement of the BLM settlement, made public late on Monday, signaled a settlement of a 2011 lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and four other environmentalist organizations, including Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop.

That lawsuit, which was an expansion of an earlier suit against the BLM, challenged the agency’s approval of 1,300 drilling applications based on a 2006 environmental impact statement, which the environmentalists argued did not include adequate air pollution analysis.

The new settlement comes on top of a judge’s 2012 ruling that the BLM had inadequately reviewed the potential impacts of drilling on some 55,000 acres of public lands on the Roan Plateau, located northwest of Rifle.

The 2011 suit initially challenged two oil and gas projects, but last year the environmental groups added more than 30 additional projects to the suit, and a judge agreed the matter needed more study.

“BLM can’t effectively protect air quality unless it knows how much pollution it is approving,” said Peter Hart, staff attorney at Wilderness Workshop. “But the Colorado River Valley Field Office approved more than a thousand wells without any air quality analysis at all. This settlement halts that practice.”

But an industry spokesman, David Ludlam of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, maintained that “no one has done more to address air quality concerns in western Colorado” than the member companies of his organization.

“In addition to a ground-breaking air study with Colorado State University, our member companies continually apply new pollution control technologies while working to convert certain areas of operation to run on cleaner-burning natural gas.”

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