5:30am

Fri April 6, 2012
Environment

At the Governor's Oil and Gas Task Force, a 'Virtual' Protest

A task force appointed by the Governor now has less than two weeks to issue its final report on whether local governments should have more authority to regulate oil and gas drilling within their boundaries. 

The state has long argued they don’t under current law.  

But some cities and towns have gone ahead with trying to ban or limit drilling anyway, largely following pressure from neighborhood and landowner groups; groups that are now taking their calls of protest to the state, with the task force’s deadline looming.

Virtual Protest

As the task force began its weekly, three hour meeting Thursday, a small group of mostly middle-aged women walked to the front of the conference room. They hand delivered photos and letters from people across the state who they said are part of a growing movement of opposition to the “industry-driven” panel.

Outside on the street, after the meeting was underway, Sonja Skakich-Scrima of Aurora, said they she and others staged the “virtual protest” because they have little faith that the unelected panel would listen to voices such as theirs.  

“We need science involved, it shouldn’t be a faith-based, industry promises deal,” said Skakich-Scrima.  

She’s worried that concerns about water and air pollution are being squashed by the rush to drill for more oil in and around suburbs like hers.

“I’m just dumbfounded that our leadership isn’t putting the brakes on this and saying look, we need to slow this down, make sure we’re using the systems that will decrease those harms, and they’re not,” she said.

Skakich-Scrima and other protesters scorned the task force for not taking formal, public comment at meetings.

Under the Gun

But officials are taking written comment and several of the task force members do come from conservation groups and cities and towns that have argued for more regulatory authority when it comes to drilling.

“I’ll just say this, this task force was established with a very short time frame to discharge its duties, it had six weeks to come up with something,” said Bob Randall, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

The DNR is in charge of the task force as well as the state’s oil and gas regulatory arm, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commmission.  

“We do feel that the task force itself is represented of the varying interests around Colorado,” Randall said.

While it appears the task force won’t side with local governments worried about the spread of drilling, they are looking at a number of so-called protocols to better ensure that local concerns are being heard and dealt with by the state.  

Sound bureaucratic?  Perhaps, but essentially the thinking is that state law may already allow, for example, a local government to hire its own well inspectors and take over for the state on a case by case basis. This is seen as important because the state only employs 15 inspectors in charge of some 45,000 active wells.  

Engagement

Randall said local governments new to drilling may not know there are a number of tools at their disposal already.

“If more people find out about it as a result of this task force, then all the better,” he said.

The task force spent the bulk of its time Thursday discussing local control, as well as set backs. That is, whether the current 350 foot buffer between rigs and homes or schools ought to be increased.  Some think that’s not enough, but others including the oil and gas industry say the whole issue is overblown.  

An analysis of statistics provided by the COGCC does show that only about 3% of the total wells permitted since 2009 are within 350 feet of structures.

Task force member Tisha Schuller of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has said conflicts like these can be settled with more dialogue and education.    

“As we continue to engage with communities, their comfort level with the industry, with the oversight of the state and federal agencies, that this conversation is going to continue to evolve,” Schuller said.

But tell that to people like Ashley Collins and it’s clear that evolution has only just begun, if it’s even begun.  She drove down to protest the meeting from Commerce City, where she said a well was drilled with the process known as hydraulic fracturing 600 feet from her subdivision.  

Too close, said Collins, for a heavy industrial activity like fracking.  

“We should have the right to clean air, to clean water, that to me is not an environmental argument,” Collins said. “I’m not an extremist, I want a very basic right.”  

The oil and gas task force has just one more meeting scheduled before a report is due to Governor Hickenlooper, April 18th.