West Slopers split on new gas regulation
RIFLE — Garfield County and other Western Slope residents, including many oil and gas industry workers and supporters, packed the Farm Fresh Cafe meeting hall here Wednesday evening to make sure their interests were heard, as a special state panel works to consider possible new regulations on the industry.
“We do know a lot about the oil and gas industry out here, because we’ve been through it for a long time,” said Justin Hemmer of Rifle, who was one of the roughly 60 people to speak before the governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force during the public comment portion of the panel’s two-day meeting in Rifle.
“With the regulations we already have in place and the way our local governments have dealt with and handled the conflicts, I feel we have done a good job of being good stewards of our land on the Western Slope,” Hemmer said.
He and others among the crowd of more than 300 people who spoke before the 21-member panel said the oil and gas industry is already subject to stringent regulations from the state and federal governments, and that more regulations or local controls are unnecessary.
Betty Baltzer manages several rental properties in western Garfield County, and many of her tenants are industry workers.
“One little change in the regulations, and it affects people’s jobs,” she said. “Oil and gas creates jobs that are good paying, and that stimulate the economy. We need to find a happy balance, but creating more rules and regulations … is not fair.”
Others, including several residents of the Battlement Mesa community across the Colorado River from Parachute, disagreed.
Bob Arrington and other members of Battlement Concerned Citizens said the state’s existing 500-foot setback between homes and natural gas well pads simply doesn’t work in a populated area.
The Battlement group lobbied the task force during the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, and during a special panel discussion that morning, for something in the range of 1,000- to 1,500-foot setback in residential areas.
Arrington reminded the task force that it was formed by Gov. John Hickenlooper in August as an alternative to several ballot measures that were making their way to the fall election that would have put the question of tougher setbacks and local control to voters.
“If you don’t do the job, it goes back to the voters,” Arrington said. “And if it goes back to the voters, it will get done.”
North Fork Valley resident John VanDenberg called for stricter water quality controls to protect agricultural irrigation water, and said drilling should not be allowed in certain areas.
He and other members of Citizens for a Healthy Community banded together to protect agricultural interests in eastern Delta County.
“Our economy is based on clean irrigation water, and without it we have a desert,” VanDenberg said. “Hundreds of jobs in our valley can’t be supplanted by oil and gas drilling.”
The task force took two hours’ worth of comment Wednesday evening, limiting speakers to two minutes each.
The panel has been meeting in different locations around the state since it was formed to discuss the issues and gather comments before making recommendations to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission early next year.
It was only the second meeting so far on the Western Slope. The other was in Durango earlier this fall.
Two days of meetings by the task force in Rifle wrap up this morning. A previously scheduled discussion about human health issues and public safety and various studies that have come out recently has been postponed until the January meeting.
Prior to the public comment session, the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association and other industry advocates and supportive elected officials from the region held a press conference around the theme “Oil and Gas: The West Slope Way.”
“The Western Slope way is a good way,” said Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson of Rifle, who also chairs Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado.
“We have things in place out here that work, and we don’t need new regulations,” Samson said. “We need to let the governor know that the western way works.”
A bit of controversy arose when the nearby Farm Fresh restaurant space got double booked by West Slope COGA and Conservation Colorado for separate rallies before the public comment period began.
Kate Graham of Conservation Colorado said the organization thought it had reserved the space, only to arrive and find out that it had been trumped by the industry support group.
“We arrived and were told we would not have access to the space and that our money would be refunded,” Graham said, adding they’d hoped to use the area to rally supporters of conservation and public health issues and prepare them to comment at the meeting.
“We’re not trying to x-out oil and gas drilling, but it is a balancing act,” she said. “We’re just trying to co-exist and be healthy.”
David Ludlam, executive director of West Slope COGA, said that his organization had the restaurant space under contract and that sharing the partitioned area would not have worked.
On learning that the space had been double-booked, Ludlam said he offered to the restaurant managers to pay for another nearby space for the conservation groups to meet.
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