Thomas Compton, chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, looks to recognize another commissioner during a public hearing Monday at the Routt County Justice Center.

Photo by John F. Russell

Thomas Compton, chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, looks to recognize another commissioner during a public hearing Monday at the Routt County Justice Center.

State oil and gas commission reopens oil well setback, water rules

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— Colorado’s oil and gas commissioners voted here Monday to go forward with a formal rulemaking process that could lead to changes in statewide regulations governing oil and gas wells close to occupied buildings. They also will look at potential measures to safeguard water quality.

The timetable for the rulemaking process ideally would conclude in early January in advance of the beginning of the new legislative session, Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Monday during a hearing in Steamboat Springs.

COGCC member Mike King, who also is the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said he would support going forward with the rulemaking process.

“It’s important to the governor that we come out into the communities and listen. This is a particularly appropriate time,” King said.

He fended off any notion that the state’s recent lawsuit filed against the city of Longmont over its oil and gas regulations signals that the governor’s office is not looking out for the interests of local communities.

“Any idea that runs counter to the governor’s statement that we will hold the oil and gas industry to the highest standards in the nation” was one he couldn’t allow to stand, King said. “We have a responsibility to the citizens of Colorado and we also have a responsibility to industry. We think the (draft rule changes) we put in front of you is a measured place to begin, that addresses the concerns of the industry and the public.”

The COGCC met before more than 60 people in a meeting room at the Routt County Justice Center and listened to comments from about 20 people, including 15 Routt County residents. The first nine to speak either were members of the local Citizens Supporting Property Rights group or sympathized with the view that Routt County's Board of Commissioners is obstructing their right to develop the subsurface mineral rights they own.

Rancher Christy Belton said that although she respects county officials, she opposed the additional regulations she says they have imposed on energy exploration.

“I would caution local elected officials from putting public opinion on the same playing field as property rights,” Belton said. “We believe the regulation set out by the COGCC are more than adequate and effective.”

Lepore told the oil and gas commissioners that the timetable for the rulemaking process requires a statewide public notice to be published by Oct. 15 to allow the rules to be taken up during a regularly schedule commission meeting Nov. 15. He anticipated an additional special meeting in December followed by a vote on whether to adopt any new rules Jan. 3.

COGCC commissioners act as legislators in rulemaking hearings, which are conducted in a quasi-legislative format, according to the commission’s Web page. The rules are still subject to approval by the Colorado Legislature.

Lepore said his staff was in favor of considering new setback and water-quality rules concurrently, but the commissioners voted 4-3 to split the two issues into separate processes.

The state’s setback rules have been of high interest on Colorado’s Front Range, where oil and gas exploration is taking place in closer proximity to residential and commercial building more than ever before.

However, the Routt County Board of Commissioners has expressed more concern about state rules they say aren’t adequate to protect water and air quality here.

Former Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall, who served on the recent working group for oil and gas here, told the COGCC that the efforts by the current county commissioners in the past year to impose tighter requirements for oil drilling permits have been taken with the safety and welfare of their constituents in mind.

“In our working group and public hearings, there are two areas Routt County sees have been deficient in the COGCC rules — water quality and air quality,” Beall said. “Routt County citizens shouldn’t have to pay for problems that exist within an industry.”

Lepore signaled that his staff thinks existing water quality regulations in Colorado already are robust.

“The operators who drill 93 percent of the wells in Colorado are participating in a voluntary groundwater monitoring program that the Colorado Oil and Gas Association initiated” after discussions with the COGCC several years ago, he said. The set of draft changes expands existing COGCC rules in some ways, but “given the wide participation we already have, staff believes the right path is a statewide policy that applies uniformly across the state.”

Commissioner Andrew Spielman, of Denver, said he thinks the rulemaking on both setbacks and water quality is worthwhile.

“I think the discussion is a very important discussion to have in a public forum — both are unfinished business from the past — where clarity is needed,” Spielman said. “We need to start that discussion.”

Commission Chairman Thomas Compton, of Hesperus, said he continues to believe in the ability of communities to work out their local issues with the energy industry.

“I would not want us to do anything that got in the way of communities working with production companies and coming to a reasonable conclusion,” Compton said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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