Report criticizes oil, gas oversight by state board

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has not able to keep up with a growing workload, causing the number of inspections of oil and gas well sites in Colorado to decrease even as the number of wells increases, claims a report issued Tuesday.

In 2010, when there were more than 43,000 active wells in the state, 16,228 inspections were conducted. In 2011, the number of wells rose to 46,835 while the number of inspections dropped to 12,239, according to the new analysis by Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project.

Meanwhile, the COGCC’s 15 inspectors each would have been responsible for the oversight of an average of 2,890 active wells, though the analysis suggests each would have averaged only 1,082 inspections that year. Both figures are far more than inspectors in Pennsylvania, Ohio or New York are responsible for and more than one inspector can be expected to carefully inspect, the group said.

This under-capacity, combined with what they see as an inadequate enforcement of regulations and penalties for violations, should lead Colorado to ensure local governments have the authority to regulate oil and gas drilling near their communities, said the project’s director, Gwen Lachelt, from her Durango office.

Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said in response to the report that the COGCC doubled its staff during the past seven years despite the recession and government cutbacks.

“By next fiscal year, COGCC plans to hire an additional seven people, including two more inspectors — an increase in staff of another 10 percent at a time when government agencies are still cutting budgets,” he said in an email.

The report comes as communities such as those in the North Fork Valley angle for greater authority over drilling activities near their communities. There, farmers and winemakers have spoken out against the Bureau of Land Management leasing parcels of land abutting their land for oil and gas development.

“We have been very supportive of Gunnison County’s effort to acquire the authority from the COGCC to conduct inspections for both county and state regulations. This is a common-sense approach for increasing the number of inspectors and inspections, improving monitoring and compliance of oil and gas facilities, and improving protection of human health and the environment,” said Robin Smith, chairman of Hotchkiss-based Citizens for a Healthy Community, which opposes what it sees as irresponsible oil and gas drilling.

A task force was set up by Gov. John Hickenlooper at the start of this month to examine the tension between state and local drilling regulations after many local governments enacted or were considering regulations stricter than COGCC’s.

But Lachelt said the task force “could open a can of worms that local governments rightly are concerned about.” It could potentially even threaten the long-standing local regulations that ban drilling in Grand Junction’s and Palisade’s watershed below Grand Mesa, depending on what the task force decides, she said.

“We are currently collaborating closely and productively with local government representatives through a task force process designed to create better mechanisms to resolve issues of state and local enforcement,” Hartman said.

The report criticized the COGCC for not utilizing its full enforcement power in collecting penalties for violations of state regulations, and it said the COGCC is doing a poor job of tracking and publishing information on violations.

Hartman contended the agency’s website is “perhaps the most open and informative in the country,” and the COGCC enforces “the most comprehensive set of oil and gas regulations in the country, including ­— beginning April 1 — the strongest and most transparent hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure rules yet adopted in any state.”


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