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Environmental experts discuss oil, gas exploration in Routt County

— Energy development negatively affects water quality, air quality and wildlife, environmental experts told a crowd of about 120 people at a public forum Tuesday night.

The Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley hosted the forum that brought together the panel to address the impacts of oil and gas exploration and production, which many expect to increase in Routt County because of the Niobrara shale formation located beneath the surface. Extra chairs had to be brought in for the crowd in Library Hall at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

"I often say, and I've lived in Colorado for most of my life, this is one of the last best places on Earth. It's worth protecting," said panelist Todd Malmsbury, spokesman for the Colorado Wildlife Federation.

Malmsbury added that he's not anti-energy. He said all energy development, not just oil and gas, impacts wildlife populations.

The rest of the panel members highlighted instances of environmental contamination from oil and gas exploration and production. The experts included Judy Jordan, former Garfield County oil and gas liaison; Rodger Steen, air quality consultant with Lakewood-based Air Sciences; and Frank Smith, director of organizing for Western Colorado Congress, the Community Alliance's parent organization.

Routt County Planning Department Director Chad Phillips also spoke about the county's role in reviewing, permitting and oversight of the oil and gas industry.

No industry experts or consultants were present to address the positive effects of oil and gas development, such as less dependence on foreign oil, job creation and economic benefits to municipalities and landowners.

Jack White, a member of the Community Alliance board of directors, said the nonprofit that strives to preserve the natural environment, enhance quality of life and retain the community's character just wants to make sure energy development is done correctly.

Jordan, who worked for Garfield County from 2007 through June, highlighted instances of groundwater contamination in that county from fracking, an oil and gas extraction method.

Steen said dust and emissions are released into the air from trucks driving to and from the drilling sites. He said the fracking process also releases harmful gases into the atmosphere.

Phillips said a majority of local permits involved fracking, which uses water and chemicals to fracture rock, to release oil or natural gas.

Smith said that there are 43,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado and that there have been nearly 1,000 documented spills since 2008. Smith said that the Western Colorado Congress isn't trying to stop exploration but that the organization's position is that drilling can be done better, and he encouraged the public to speak up.

Phillips said the county will begin to revise its oil and gas regulations this fall and is seeking public comment. He said there is some urgency to adopt new regulations before oil and gas drilling picks up. He said the county is reviewing four permits and expects more by the end of the year.

Steamboat resident John Hanley attended Tuesday's forum. He said that he owns land in Craig where seismic testing is taking place and that he wanted to learn more about oil and gas development.

"I didn't realize we were possibly facing this in Routt County," he said. "I guess it's a situation I don't want to see an oil rig in the park, that kind of thing. But on the other hand, we do need to extract these resources. I'd prefer we conserve. We all say that, but everyone drove here, almost."