State oil and gas regulators heard plenty this week about how it’s doing implementing regulatory reforms of the industry, during two visits in communities near areas of drilling on the Western Slope.
The meetings held by the five-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in Paonia on Tuesday and Glenwood Springs on Wednesday came as it has been working to finish adopting, and begin implementing, regulations complying with Senate Bill 181. That 2019 law in part changed the COGCC’s mission from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it in a way that protects public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife.
Commissioners this week heard hours of comments in person and via Zoom that ranged from concern over the increased regulatory burden being imposed on the industry to questions about whether the agency is going far enough in providing the protections the law requires.
Robert Bleil, regulatory programs director for Utah Gas Corp., an energy developer with assets in western Colorado, told the panel he can appreciate the monumental effort to implement the new rules. But he also talked about the challenges of energy companies keeping up with hundreds of regulations from more than 35 federal, state and county agencies and divisions. He said that since January, COGCC has implemented 120 guidance documents, forms or changes, and that state air regulators have changed regulations seven times in the last year,
Those are “just two of the 35 agencies I’ve mentioned,” Bleil said.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said he thinks the COGCC rules are cumbersome for energy developers, and don’t account for differences between drilling in urban areas for oil, versus in rural areas locally for natural gas. With natural gas prices having risen to $6 for thousand cubic feet, there should be an uptick in drilling in the area, he said.
“That is happening in Utah and Wyoming just across the state line but it’s not happening in western Garfield County,” he said.
LuLu Colby, who used to work for the COGCC as a reclamation specialist, voiced concern that the agency’s new mission is crumbling as companies obtain variances and otherwise circumvent the requirements of the new rules. She spoke of a drilling project south of Rifle that she said would occur in areas of high-priority wildlife habitat, include two locations within 2,000 feet of homes, and occur within 250 feet of the spring supplying her home with water.
“Don’t forget me — LuLu. I will be fighting tooth and nail to save my valley from this oil and gas incursion and monitoring the state’s adherence to its mission to protect,” she said.
She said she knows from her COGCC work the inevitable leaks, emissions and equipment failures that come with oil and gas development, and the new rules are intended to protect the environment and homes from such failures.
Paonia Mayor Mary Bachran said her town has a vested interest in the implementation of S.B. 181, especially after the Bureau of Land Management adopted a resource management plan, opposed by the town, opening up the North Fork Valley to more natural gas development and Delta County repealed its oil and gas regulations.
“The town of Paonia is a frontline community that will bear the brunt of oil and gas development upstream in our watershed and airshed and the related truck traffic on (Colorado) Highway 133, which bisects the North Fork Valley,” she said.
Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told the commission that “we know we can have the economy and energy we need and the environment we all want by responsibly producing oil and natural gas in Colorado.”
“As we are facing a global energy crisis that doesn’t need to exist caused by supply restraint produced by political decisions, the West Slope and Piceance Basin hold the key to ensuring Coloradans have reliable, safe and clean energy through our cold winters,” she said.
The COGCC is still working on adopting more rules as required by S.B. 181, preparing to consider regulations to toughen the bonding/financial assurance requirements to ensure enough money is in place to pay for plugging wells and reclaiming pads in cases such as when companies go defunct. Brian Williams with the Western Colorado Alliance told the commission that he’d like to ensure the stricter assurance rules apply not just on private lands but also on federal lands, going beyond what is required by the Bureau of Land Management.
”Really, out here on the Western Slope it’s a big deal. We’ve got a lot of federal land out here,” he said.