Citizens groups angry over bid to exclude oil drilling testimony
Representatives of citizen and conservation groups on Friday voiced outrage over an attempt by the oil and gas industry to prevent testimony by gas-patch residents as the state considers stricter drilling rules.
The groups say the residents are exactly the people whose concerns need to be heard as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission considers rules increasing minimum setbacks between homes and wells and requiring before-and-after groundwater testing near drilling.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Colorado Petroleum Association filed motions Thursday to bar testimony from witnesses including many from Garfield and Mesa counties. The witnesses are from groups including Western Colorado Congress and Conservation Colorado.
“It’s insulting. It’s antidemocratic,” Mike Chiropolos, an attorney with Western Resource Advocates, said about the industry action during a teleconference Friday.
Chiropolos said the industry is worried that if the residents are allowed to speak, “the commission might vote for protections that actually protect public health.”
Commission staff have recommended increasing minimum setbacks to 500 feet, but citizen groups say bigger setbacks are needed to protect the public.
The commission hopes to adopt new rules by Wednesday.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said the commission would likely decide on the industry motions Monday.
He said a representative of the state Attorney General’s Office is expected to make a recommendation on the matter beforehand.
Said Ken Wonstolen, the attorney who represented COGA in filing the motions regarding the groups’ witnesses, “We think it is appropriate … to register our objection to the admissibility of certain of the proffered evidence of those parties.”
Wonstolen said he realizes the standards of admissibility in the commission’s proceedings are different than in a court of law, but standards still should be applied.
At the least, testimony from the witnesses being challenged should be qualified as having been admitted under relaxed standards, he said.
Several Garfield County residents who hope to testify next week described during Friday’s teleconference how they’ve become ill from fumes and suffered other impacts from nearby drilling.
“This is where I live, this is where I work and I can’t even stay here and it’s just not right,” said Kaethe Williams, who owns a horse ranch south of Silt.
The industry contends the residents aren’t medically qualified to speak to whether oil and gas development is making them sick. It also says that some submitted testimony about the industry is “abusive and harassing.”
It also is seeking to bar testimony from Tresi Houpt, a former oil and gas commissioner and Garfield County commissioner, and Judy Jordan, who was the county’s oil and gas liaison until being fired for undisclosed reasons.