Going to the gasroots

Oil and gas companies mobilize from the ground up in a changing West

  • Direct mailer sent out by Colorado Oil And Gas Association and Colorado Petroleum Association

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The turnaround came suddenly. After Coloradans elected Gov. Bill Ritter in 2006 on a platform that included tighter controls on oil and gas development, legislators passed a slew of measures that eroded industry's stronghold in the state. One law gave property owners more rights in negotiations with companies seeking to drill on their land. Others ended industry representatives' longstanding domination of the state oil and gas commission, gave health and wildlife officials more input on decisions, and triggered the first comprehensive revision of state rules since the mid-'90s. Meanwhile, an upcoming ballot initiative could net the state hundreds of millions more dollars in severance taxes from oil and gas companies per year.

Facing something of a sea change, gas companies, their contractors and their supporters took the grassroots approach to new heights, completely overwhelming similar efforts by local environmental groups at a June 10 public hearing in Grand Junction on the new rules. Gas workers and realtors circulated misleading e-mails to rally industry supporters, claiming that Greenpeace planned to flood the meeting with five busloads of radical environmentalists and stoking fears over lost jobs. The gas boomtown Trinidad became an instant media darling when its Chamber of Commerce bused 80 community members across the state to protest the new rules. Companies encouraged workers to stop in; some even paid attendees for their time.

At the hearing, folks wearing stickers reading "Oil and gas feeds my family" vastly outnumbered those with stickers reading "Protect Colorado's wildlife habitat!" Gas workers, teachers, real estate agents, ranchers and even high school students paraded to the microphone to decry lost jobs and impacts to the economy, drawing thunderous applause, cheers and whistles from the massive crowd.

Their protests primarily targeted a single provision that would restrict drilling for up to 90 days in some places to protect wintering ungulates and species like sage grouse during mating season. Industry and supporters spun it as an outright seasonal ban in drilling in certain places, guaranteed to hurt communities and create a transient workforce. But the proposed rule is less stringent than similar Bureau of Land Management rules and is clearly worded to be flexible, allowing companies to negotiate alternatives with state wildlife officials.

Industry's newspaper and radio ads that ran during the following weeks of hearings used comments from the Grand Junction hearing and the flood of press coverage it received to build on the appearance of a groundswell against all the draft rules. The ad headline "Is Anybody Listening?" splashed across the pages of the Denver Post, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and other papers around the state, condemning the Ritter administration for its alleged callous disregard of hardworking people.

But it appears those hardworking folks won't be out of a job anytime soon. As gas companies publicly wrangled with Colorado's oil and gas commission over the rules -- which are expected to pass by mid-August -- they quietly continued to invest millions of dollars in infrastructure and land in the state, and applications for drilling permits have increased by about 27 percent over this time last year.

Outside the Grand Junction hearing, Nick Swensen took a quiet break from the mob to smoke in the shade. Swensen, who had recently started work as a driver for a local fluid-trucking company that serves the gas patch, found out about the meeting the day before. He was collecting his $29-an-hour rate for his time here. "I would have come anyway," he said. "It's about my life and my future. This is the best job I've ever had." He  doesn't like the idea of big government intervention, he explained, or that energy impacts get more attention than the impacts of suburban sprawl. At the same time, he cares about the local environment. How does he feel about the rules? "I'm still trying to figure that out," he laughed. The hype on both sides has been difficult to sort through, and the meeting hasn't helped, he said. "It's a bitchfest."

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News assistant editor