Member of new oil, gas panel optimistic
An appointee to a new Colorado task force is pointing to past experience in voicing high hopes that it can help find the right balance when it comes to oil and gas development.
“I think we can do it because I’ve seen it done before,” said Russell George, now president of Colorado Northwestern Community College, based in Rangely.
George said he was involved in efforts to find that balance both as a state lawmaker whose district included Garfield County’s natural gas patch in the 1990s, and later while serving as executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, which includes the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulatory agency.
George, who carried oil and gas legislation for concerned Garfield County residents while a lawmaker, said a state regulatory scheme was developed then that “worked pretty well.” But he said things change, and there now are more polarized views, including about the appropriateness of oil and gas consumption.
He believes oil and gas regulation is “one of the really important issues in Colorado today and I’d like to get it to the point where it doesn’t have so much discord in it and it doesn’t drive people apart as much as it has. That’s not healthy for the state.”
While nearly 300 people sought appointment to the new task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper, the governor came to George to see if he’d be willing to serve. Hickenlooper is a Democrat and George is a Republican.
Hickenlooper set up the task force as part of a deal with U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, to keep several oil and gas measures off this fall’s ballot. The task force includes oil and gas, environmental, agricultural, local government and other interests.
Said George, “Of course it’s sensible to put together a number of people from all the interests and have them sit and talk about that, and most of us understand that these kinds of issues are not best managed by initiatives and referendums.”
Some other appointees of note include Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction, a former state lawmaker and secretary of state, and Matt Sura, a former director of the Western Colorado Congress citizen group who is now an attorney often representing the interests of residents on oil and gas matters.
Lisa Bracken, who lives south of Silt in an area with numerous natural gas wells, applied unsuccessfully for a spot on the task force. She said she’s not disappointed about being left off the task force, but wonders whether it includes any landowners who have experienced drilling impacts and have concerns about unknown health and safety risks.
“These are things I worry won’t be well represented through personal experience and testimony,” she said.
But at least one task force appointee stands ready to assume that role — Jim Fitzgerald, a southwestern Colorado rancher. He’s been concerned about the impacts of drilling on and near his land, and on surrounding national forest. He said he wants to ensure that the concerns of surface owners where wells are drilled, along with neighbors and nearby communities, are heard.
“It’s basically — in spite of what they say — it’s an unregulated industry that has an enormous impact on people and I’m not sure they know what they’re doing,” he said.
He said he wants to see more individual and community power and control, more research on health impacts, and fairer rules on things such as the required minimum setback between homes and wells.
Industry representatives this week defended the existing rules, including Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.
“COGA hopes the task force provides information and insight into what is already a robust regulatory system with a strong role for local governments. After a divisive summer, I am hopeful this panel of diverse voices and interests will find, and promote, workable solutions that allow this industry that is so critical to the health and vitality of our state to continue to responsibly develop our natural resources,” she said in a prepared statement.
In its own news release, the industry-funded group Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development said that it “urges the new task force to keep in mind that Colorado already has environmental regulations often dubbed the ‘best in the nation’ and relies on the input of citizens and expertise from our local governments. Every health, safety, and economic consideration is already factored into the energy development process and Colorado places a premium on environmental protection and safety while ensuring our state’s vital energy industry can continue to operate.”