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

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.

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