Counties bet on Zinke for millions
Royalties from natural gas drilling an issue since Anvil Points cleanup
Gambling that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke might find a way to direct money to northwest Colorado counties from oil shale research, local government officials have asked federal legislators to keep the matter out of a must-pass defense measure.
The Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado asked U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., to refrain from seeking an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would direct the money from an Interior Department account to Colorado. The money, possibly as much as $76 million, has been an issue for years dating back to before the completion of work cleaning up the Anvil Points oil shale research facility west of Rifle.
That work ended in 2013, but well before then, local government and federal officials sought without success to get the counties their shares of the money collected by the federal government from natural gas drilling on what had been known as the Naval Oil Shale Reserve, which is now known as the Roan Plateau.
Legislation has failed to move forward, so Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., approached Zinke with the problem and was told that there might be an administrative way to transfer the money from Interior to Garfield, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties.
“I have spoken directly to Interior Secretary Zinke and Deputy Secretary (David) Bernhardt about this issue, and I will continue to urge them to release tens of millions of dollars to our local communities,” Gardner said.
Bernhardt is a Rifle native.
The Interior Department said it couldn’t confirm any private conversations Zinke might have had with lawmakers.
Garfield and Rio Blanco counties are to receive the largest shares of the distribution — 40 percent each — while Mesa and Moffat counties are to get 10 percent each.
That formula, however, couldn’t be used under legislation as it has been proposed.
“As you know in Washington, D.C., things can get twisted and they got twisted,” Garfield County Commissioner Mike Samson said.
Garfield and Mesa counties both have federal mineral lease districts, which would receive the counties’ shares. But that’s not what Garfield and Mesa counties want, and the other counties are standing with them.
There is a way around that if Congress would direct the payments to Colorado, but Mesa County commissioners say they don’t trust the state to pass the money along, even if the legislation requires it.
“They steal it from us all the time,” Commissioner Rose Pugliese said.
If the money goes to the state, “We probably won’t see a dime of it,” Moffat County Commissioner Ray Beck said.
There are additional hazards in going to Congress, not least of them being that efforts to capture the money will draw attention to it and competitors will swoop in.
Current House rules also would prohibit the direct payment of money from Interior to the counties because that would amount to an outlawed earmark.
The Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado contends the payments are anything but an earmark, given that the money comes from the federal government’s royalty on drilling in the oil shale reserve, but gaining the payments administratively would skip that issue.
So, Samson said, the best option is to work the Zinke prospect “to the hilt” and if that doesn’t work, wait until next year to mount another legislative effort.
The strategy is up to the counties, Bennet’s office said.
“Their leadership will determine a path forward, and our office appreciates their direction in this effort,” the office said.