Public comes in droves to comment on oil and gas rules at Glenwood hearing |

Public comes in droves to comment on oil and gas rules at Glenwood hearing

URSA representative Matt Honeycutt speaks during the open public comment on SB 19-181 in front of the COGCC at the Hotel Colorado on Wednesday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The Western Slope is divided on oil and gas.

That is one takeaway from Wednesday’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting as commissioners and the public alike gave comment on proposed rules implementing Senate Bill 181.

SB 181 mandates overhaul of the COGCC’s approach to approving oil and gas development across the state.

More than 100 people attended the meeting held at Hotel Colorado, with many commenting on how the rules could affect their neighborhoods or livelihoods. The rule changes are meant to redirect COGCC’s mission from “fostering” to “regulating” oil and gas development.

“Many times you’ll see that the burden of proof is favorable to the operator,” COGCC Director Jeff Robbins said. “We’re trying to create a neutral regulatory framework.”

Some county commissioners on the Western Slope wonder why rules implementing SB 181, which touts the importance of local control, don’t seem to take into account the importance of oil and gas development to rural counties.

“Rio Blanco is different from other counties,” Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Ruger told the COGCC during the meeting at Hotel Colorado said. “Industry is our main focus.”

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin highlighted the work at the county level to maintain high air quality and protect wildlife, which was done without a state mandate.

“We have better air now with 11,000 active wells than we did in 2008 with 6,000 wells,” he said. “You have to ask yourselves, ‘Why?’ It’s because of the involvement of the county, the industry and our citizens.”

He urged the COGCC to account for the differences between the Front Range, where oil and gas operations are more likely to border dense urban areas, and the Western Slope, which is generally less populated.

“We hope that this commission will not seek a single way of doing business, a one size-fits-all, in the implementing of this legislation,” Martin said.

Dozens of residents from Parachute to Paonia applauded the stricter permitting process and commented on the impacts and feared impacts of natural gas development.

Concerns ranged from the nuisance and health effects of living near drill pads to the potential for water and soil contamination, and the ever-present alarm that natural gas is a fossil fuel contributing to climate change.

William Michael Smith of Silt said he moved to Colorado years ago after working in dangerous oil refineries in the Midwest. When he moved south of Silt, he lived near a conservancy of 240 acres, thinking the state would preserve it.

When a drilling operation moved in later, “they took that conservancy, and made it into an industrial hell,” Smith said.

A number of community advocacy groups also spoke in favor of the stricter statewide regulations of oil and gas.

“Our organization wouldn’t exist if everything was just fine out here,” said Emily Hornback, of the Western Colorado Alliance. “We’ve worked with communities like Battlement Mesa, where entire neighborhoods are dealing with urban drilling.”

One of those Battlement Mesa residents is Betsy Leonard.

“What used to be our community has been destroyed forever by the gas industry,” Leonard said. “These new rules may not make a great difference to us, but they may save other communities from our fate.”

COGCC chairman Howard Boigon said it is important the newer COGCC commissioners understand the history of Battlement Mesa.

“It was an Exxon company town, that wasn’t necessarily meant to become a freestanding, locally governed community,” Boigon said. “Obviously, circumstances have changed.”

He added it would be good to go over that history in order to answer the question about why Battlement Mesa’s local elected government wasn’t involved in this process.

Commissioner Martin pushed back on the idea that Battlement lacked representation.

“Garfield County represents Battlement Mesa,” Martin said, adding there are 14 homeowners associations in that neighborhood within unincorporated Garfield County, and a variety of other groups that the commissioners listen to.

“We do represent them. We take them very seriously,” Martin said. “We have a lot of different voices out of Battlement Mesa. We try to balance that, and each and every one are listened to and appreciated.”

Like Martin, oil and gas industry representatives on the Western Slope urged the COGCC to take into account their good track records in Garfield County, and the differences between the Front Range and the Piceance Basin.

Those with jobs in the oil industry defended their commitment to safety, and urged the commission to take into account the economic importance of natural gas extraction.

“It is very important that folks in this room and in this county understand that we do the absolute best to operate day to day safely, and put environment first,” Brock Hayes, water foreman for Caerus Piceance LLC said.

Wednesday’s meeting was just one part of a long public comment process about the proposed regulatory changes. The COGCC will open an online portal for public comments in the coming days, Robbins said.

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