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for people who care about the West

Going to the gasroots

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

 

Watch out! Bureaucrats want to protect prairie dogs and other wild animals at the expense of the already-faltering economy and jobs that sustain thousands of hardworking families like yours.

At least, that's the message broadcast this summer by Colorado's oil and gas industry in a PR campaign against a sweeping proposal for tighter controls on natural gas drilling in the state. In June and July, as the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission considered requiring stronger wildlife habitat safeguards, higher bonding amounts, more thorough notification of landowners, and setting new gas wells back from streams and public water sources, industry trade associations launched at least three rounds of full-page ads in daily newspapers around the state, as well as a spate of radio spots and at least three direct mailings to active voters.

Why the big PR push? "The rules really threaten the health of the industry" and the state economy, says Stan Dempsey of the Colorado Petroleum Association, which teamed with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to fund the campaign. "We felt a significant number of people could lose their jobs and we wanted to communicate that."

But the strength and scope of the campaign suggests something more. "I don't think this is just about the rules. (Industry) doesn't sit where they did 10 or 20 years ago," says Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer, a longtime Capitol Hill observer. In Colorado, as in a handful of other Western states, the intensifying environmental and social impacts of the gas boom have helped turn the political tide against wholesale development. But there are still "an awful lot of people in this state whose perceptions are up for grabs," Straayer says. And with energy prices sky-high and the nation slumping into a recession, industry has a window of opportunity to win back their favor, at least in the short term.

The rural West has a long history of supporting, or at least tolerating, the oil and gas industry, but the Bush administration's headlong push for domestic energy development following Sept. 11 has spurred state and local backlash as the region's population grows. Environmental groups enjoy increasing clout in legislatures and have forged alliances with ranchers, hunters and working-class folks who want more protection for land, water and wildlife. In May, New Mexico finished the three-year process of revising its rules (many of which hadn't changed substantively since 1935) to strengthen enforcement and require liners in waste pits to help prevent contamination of water and soil.

In response, oil and gas companies have ramped up PR campaigns promoting their economic role in communities from Wyoming to New Mexico and warned that regulations will slow investment and force them to shuffle rigs to other states -- costing local jobs, depressing tax revenues and further driving up energy prices.

In Colorado, the number of producing wells has climbed to more than 35,000 and the number of drilling permits issued each year has nearly quintupled since 2000, to 6,368 in 2007. Just last year, a Canadian free-market think tank survey of industry rated the state as one of the friendliest regulatory environments in the world for oil and gas development, alongside Thailand, Qatar and Romania.

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