Drilling slowdown talk of town

Gas industry dominates discussion during county’s call-in meeting

More than 1,000 Mesa County residents participated Saturday in a telephone town-hall meeting that focused on the slump in natural gas drilling on the Western Slope.

The hour-long meeting also featured state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, taking verbal jabs at Gov. Bill Ritter over Ritter’s support of regulatory changes that would tighten drilling rules in Colorado.

The meeting was hosted by Mesa County commissioners Janet Rowland and Craig Meis.

Organizers reached out to 30,000 people who were telephoned at home in the morning and given the opportunity to ask questions funneled through two screeners. People also were asked to participate in a series of polls about the energy industry.

Questions included how county residents might receive a financial benefit from gas drilling in the Piceance Basin, and how they and legislators could fight the new drilling regulations.

One woman who said she thought energy development had created as much congestion on the Western Slope as there is on the Front Range asked commissioners whether they had identified a level of energy development that doesn’t overtax services provided by local
governments.

“I think we’ve been overbalanced,” she said. “It’s probably cost us money that we haven’t really accounted for.”

Meis responded by saying county residents can enjoy both a high quality of life and the economic development that comes from drilling. He said the industry slowdown will give the county time to catch up and plan for further development if and when drilling ramps up again.

While some people attribute the decline in rigs to the national recession and a lack of pipeline capacity, several callers Saturday heaped blame on Ritter and the proposed new rules on drilling. Penry joined in, saying companies are struggling to obtain loans to make capital investments and are faced with rules “creating additional uncertainty, piling on additional costs.”

“If it were any other sector pulling back hundreds of millions of dollars, the leadership of this state would be sitting down saying, ‘How can we keep you here? What can we do to keep you here?’ ” Penry said. “But that’s not happening in this case. It’s making a grim situation only worse.”

The senator said he is confident that, in the long term, there will be “a growing bipartisan recognition that we’ve got to fix these rules.”

In response to a question about alternative energy production, Meis said it’s important for other areas of the country to step up and provide energy, whether it be extracted minerals or alternative forms such as wind and solar power.

“I don’t want to be the only place supplying energy for the country,” he said. “Just because Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t want to see windmills in their backyard doesn’t mean we need to be drilling here in our backyard (alone).”

Not every participant was pleased with the tenor of the discussion that leaned in favor of the energy industry. Rowland, who acted as the moderator, indicated about halfway through the meeting that one person wanted to know if the commissioners had “given thought to having anyone on the panel with a differing opinion.”

Rowland responded by saying the meeting wasn’t intended to serve as a pro-and-con discussion of the industry, but rather as a forum for people to ask questions.

After the meeting, Rowland was pleased with the participation, saying that roughly 1,050 people stayed on the phone for most of the hour.

“I thought it went pretty well,” she said. “I was actually pretty excited about it.”

Although participants asked a total of 11 questions, Rowland said at any given time there were 20 people waiting to ask a question, and that after the meeting ended, 150 people left messages.

Commissioners will provide written responses to the questions that weren’t answered on the phone and post them at http://www.mesacounty.us. She also said an audio file of the meeting will be posted on the Web site Monday.

Commissioners plan to host town-hall meetings over the phone every month to discuss issues related to public safety, elections and the current legislative session.


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