Regulators sheltered from freeze in hiring

State agency adds staff for new drilling rul

RIFLE — Oil and gas regulators have been granted an exemption from a state hiring freeze so they can staff up to implement new rules next year.

Dave Neslin, acting director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the exemption will allow for the hiring of about 14 people. He hopes to add the new employees in 60 to 90 days.

Neslin addressed the staffing issue this week during one of two public presentations in Rifle. He spoke before the Northwest Colorado Oil & Gas Forum and the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board.

Neslin said the 14 additional positions should be enough for his agency to be able to administer comprehensive new rules that the oil and gas commission is expected to finalize next week. Regulators plan to begin implementing the rules April 1, except on federal lands, where they would take effect a month later.

Last year the Legislature authorized hiring 21 people, but at the low range of the pay scale, Neslin said. So his office looked to fill 16 this year instead. It has filled two of those positions so far, but Neslin said other hiring was delayed because senior personnel were too busy with the rulemaking, another record year of well-permit applications, and some environmental issues, including drilling-related spills north of Parachute.

Then, effective Oct. 1, Gov. Bill Ritter instituted a state hiring freeze in response to the national economic slowdown.

However, the Office of State Planning and Budgeting later approved the exemption for the oil and gas positions.

Neslin said that based on permits issued per worker, the state has about 10 percent of the oil and gas staffing that the federal Bureau of Land Management does in Colorado.

The state has increased conditions on some permits, primarily related to pit-lining requirements, because of recent drilling problems such as this year’s incidents near Parachute. Combined with more permit applications, the result has been an increased backlog in permits awaiting approval.

Meanwhile, the oil and gas commission will be preparing to implement new rules aimed at better protecting the public, wildlife and the environment during oil and gas development.

The agency plans to focus more staffing on enforcement and inspections. That includes keeping an eye on the state’s producing wells, which are about to exceed 37,000 in number.

With that many to monitor, state regulators still will have to rely on residents to bring problems to their attention, Neslin said.


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