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
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can be amended or withdrawn.
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.
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.