State laws — and small staff — muzzle would-be watchdog

  • Brian Macke, Director, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission

  The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, charged with overseeing energy development in the state, is conflicted. The commission’s mission is to facilitate oil and gas production. At the same time, it is supposed to protect the public’s health, safety and welfare.

It does the first part of this job well: Colorado is in the throes of one of the largest energy buildups in its history. Between 1998 and 2003, gas production in Colorado increased by a factor of more than 16, reaching more than a trillion cubic feet in 2004, enough to heat 500,000 homes for 25 years.

But critics say the second part of the commission’s job — protecting the public — often falls by the wayside. "Their object is to drill wells, get wells in the ground and get gas flowing, (even if it is) at the expense of people and the environment," says Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango.

The seven-member commission, appointed by the governor, has long been stacked with industry insiders. It currently includes four past or present senior executives of oil and gas companies and an oil industry geologist. The two remaining spots are filled by a Garfield County rancher and Michael Klish, an environmental scientist.

The commission has never denied a permit to drill a well. Its permit process is designed for applications to succeed, explains Hearings Manager Tricia Beaver. She says that if an application does not comply, staffers contact the company so it can be amended or withdrawn.

Klish, the commission’s longest-standing member, says that in the past, the commission "may have appeared" biased toward industry. But today, he says, "They’re really even-handed" — or as even-handed as they are allowed to be. He says the commission is hamstrung by state statutes that put the rights of mineral lessees over the rights of landowners, but the commission and some legislators are trying to remedy that imbalance.

In the past, the commission has not done on-site inspections for well permits. But starting Feb. 15, it will allow surface owners to request an on-site inspection if a company applies for a permit without first signing an agreement with the surface owner.

A flood of inspection requests may overwhelm the commission’s small staff, however. Three people oversee the permit process from the commission’s Denver office. Statewide, six technicians, mostly engineers, work in the field, and four environmental staffers provide more extensive reviews.

To prepare for the new inspections, the commission has requested state funding for one more full-time employee, but even if approved, that person wouldn’t be hired until July 1. Until then, existing staff will divvy up any inspection requests.

Meanwhile, the commission’s workload promises to only get bigger. The commission estimates that there are almost 26,000 active wells in the state today, and more than 500 new wells have already been permitted in 2005, with 376 permit applications still pending. In the commission’s online database, a statewide search brings up 2,852 "incident inspections" since 1990. That’s an average of about 190 violations, such as spills and overflows, each year — and there have already been 24 in the first six weeks of 2005.

In some spots, counties have stepped in with local oil and gas regulations. La Plata County, which has seen more development than any other county, requires companies to use existing wells, roads and pipeline corridors when possible, rather than building new ones; to mitigate visual and noise pollution; to put wells at least 400 feet from homes; and to minimize visual scars caused by earth-moving for roads and wells. But the county, too, faces serious staffing issues. Angie Buchanan is La Plata County’s sole oil and gas planner for private lands, and her position is half-time. She has a staggering workload, which includes issuing permits for oil and gas wells and inspecting one or two well sites each week.

At the state level, Rep. Kathleen Curry, D, is sponsoring a bill to require agreements between surface landowners and subsurface mineral lessees before permits to drill can be issued (HCN, 2/7/05: Split-estate rebellion). But the bill does not address the contentious issues of reforming the oil and gas commission, or increasing industry oversight.