Critics seek more accountability of Garfield County government with new website
A group of Garfield County residents have unveiled a new website that focuses on funds spent by county government in relation to combating new oil and gas regulations.
Called the Garfield County Taxpayer Accountability Project, the coalition has highlighted every dollar spent by the county on anywhere from Front Range lawyers to consultants since 2019, when legislation restricting oil and gas development was passed by the Colorado Legislature.
Specifically, Senate Bill 181 changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from one of fostering the development of oil and gas to actively regulating the industry. That was accomplished through a series of new rules approved by the COGCC last year, including a new 2,000-foot setback for facilities from homes, schools and other occupied buildings.
The Garfield County Taxpayer Accountability Project, led by local environmentalists and activists including Allyn Harvey and Leslie Robinson, is a subsidiary of a non-partisan political organization Colorado Rural Voters, based in Grand Junction.
“We want to keep the county accountable going forward with the county tax dollars and how they manage natural gas development,” Harvey said during a Thursday virtual unveiling of the website. “The bottom line is that the commission spent 18 months and nearly $2 million from the county coffers fighting against protections for public health and safety, and a lot of us found this confounding.”
Ever since — and even before — the law passed, the Garfield County Commission expressed adamant opposition to it. They argued the law, meant to prioritize public health and environmental concerns, would essentially cripple Garfield County’s economy, which in the past has relied heavily on extractive industries to support its political subdivisions and special districts.
Using the county’s oil and gas mitigation fund, which currently sits at about $16 million, the commission has financed lobbying and legal efforts aimed at trying to overturn certain setback regulations. The website cites every Garfield County invoice in relation to these substantial costs.
In 2019, Robinson joined a group of residents, including the Battlement Concerned Citizens and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, in filing a lawsuit against the COGCC that argued against drilling within a 2,000-foot setback zone of homes. The regulatory revision was ultimately approved by the oil and gas commission.
In early July, however, commissioners unanimously passed legislation that effectively allows well pads to be drilled within the 2,000-foot setback. Operators must, however, request what’s called an Alternative Location Analysis to drill within that limit.
“It was very disappointing to find that the commissioners spent nearly $2 million fighting these health and safety regulations that were proposed not only during the legislation of 2019, but the rule-making that is still continuing today,” said Robinson, a 2020 candidate for county commissioner and president of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “And representing our members, it’s also been frustrating to work with the commissioners over the new regulations that they just approved as well, because they ignored the 2,000-foot setbacks and they approved 350-foot setbacks.”
The new Garfield County Taxpayer Accountability Project also aims to promote better spending of local government funds.
Robinson said she wants to know what the plan is regarding the $16 million oil and gas mitigation fund.
“Are they just going to spend a million dollars here and there for their consultants and lawyers for promoting the oil and gas industry? Or will they use that money for more important things like housing, to fix our transportation problems?” she said. “That’s a lot of money to be sitting on.”
In addition to fighting lawsuits and paying consultants, Garfield County joined up in 2020 with like-minded county and city governments in Colorado called the Western & Rural Local Governments Coalition, which would challenge all the new oil and gas regulation implemented through Senate Bill 181.
The commission allocated almost $300,000 to the multi-county Western Slope effort. On the flipside, however, the commission continues to use funds to combat the ongoing legal battle with Rocky Mountain Industrials, a company trying to expand its quarry mine operation near Transfer Trail just north of Glenwood Springs. Earlier in July, they allocated another $500,000 toward the legal battle.
Following the website unveiling, Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said the county has seen a 40% decline in revenue since Senate Bill 181 was enacted, which is why joining with fellow governments to be part of the rulemaking process was essential to the cause.
“And at the end of the day, the state said, thank you very much, you did a great job, we appreciate what you did and you helped us along the way,” he said. “So, we felt that we did a very good job of representing 17 different governments in the state of Colorado, the cities and counties. And yes, we use the dollars out of the energy mitigation fund …”
Martin said if the county had issues from environmental concerns and lawsuits involving energy development or use, it would have a fund that has been set aside for many years to be able to use that and not take it from general fund dollars, especially when the general fund is under tremendous strain due to COVID.
Meanwhile, he said the 40% decline has led to the suffering of many special districts and political subdivisions across the county.
“We had to help all of the special districts from school districts, the hospital district, fire district, cemetery district…, ” Martin said. “We have to stand for all of these special districts and all the other folks as well as the energy company because they are the top 10 taxpayers in the entire county.”
“We would be derelict in our duty as elected officials not to participate,” Martin said. “And so it is our priority.”
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or email@example.com
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