Bill Grant Column December 16, 2008
Legislature should not usurp gas-drilling rule-making process
State Sen. Josh Penry and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association may accuse the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of exceeding the Legislature’s intent in their rule making, but that is not what a large majority of Coloradoans think. They supported Gov. Bill Ritter’s push for change in the composition of the oil and gas commission so that it could draft rules protecting people and the environment, and that is what they expect.
It is very important that the industry and its friends in the Legislature not be allowed to use the current economic downturn as an excuse to weaken rules carefully written after numerous public meetings across the state, thousands of comments and testimonials, 12 days of hearings, and an additional 11 days of discussion before the unanimous vote to send the proposed rules to the Legislature for its consideration.
“The final package,” according to the commission, “reflects a substantial number of modifications drawn from the comments and suggestions of industry representatives, local governments, conservation groups and others.”
The oil and gas industry, followed closely by Republican legislators, has wasted no time assailing the new rules. Calling the introduction of the rules a “sad day for Colorado’s economuc well being,” John Swartout, of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association complained that the new rules “create the most expensive, time-consuming and burdensome regulatory environment in the nation — all at a time when Colorado should be fighting to keep jobs. The overall impact of the rules officially make Colorado the most challenging state in the nation for the natural gas and oil industry to conduct business.”
Penry is leading the charge for the Republicans, suggesting that the new rules are partially responsible for the drilling slowdown. “We are going to spend the first part of the legislative session dealing with the mess that is these regulations,” he told an industry group. House Minority Leader Mike May added to the tone of panic by stating “We cannot afford to push the energy industry out of Colorado, given the current state of the economy. And many fear that the proposed rules will do just that.”
But weakening the rules will not prevent the current slowdown. As Harris Sherman, Director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the commission put it: “What is affecting the industry is the credit crunch and the fall in commodity prices.” Only changing market conditions, including more pipeline availability, could bring the industry back to its current drilling rate when economic conditions permit, even if that is desirable.
What the rules can do is ensure that when the industry expands again we will not be facing the same public health and environmental problems the oil and gas commission was charged with fixing.
Among the important issues addressed by the rules are protecting streams that provide drinking water, establishing rules for reporting toxic chemicals to emergency personnel, erosion and storm-water runoff control, odor and dust control near homes in some areas and regulations for waste pits for liquids polluted by drilling. The rules also allow for consultation and recommendations with the state Health Department and the Division of Wildlife to protect public health, wildlife and the environment.
Before unanimously passing the rules, the commission deferred some particularly contentious issues in order to submit the rules to the Legislature. The distance wells should be set back from homes and standards for wildlife protection will be taken up next year, allowing for the collection and study of additional information on these issues.
Rep. Kathleen Curry, one of the sponsors of the 2007 legislation to reform the commission, is confident that the Legislature lacks the appetite for a wholesale rewrite of the regulations, though she expects a close examination and some tweaking to see that the rules conform to legislative intent. I hope Curry is right and the rules will be adopted with little dissent.
But the best way to be sure the rules are not compromised to favor industry is to let our elected legislators know the oil and gas commission speaks for us in its efforts to protect our health, our environment, and our way of life.