Our View: Motion not same as action
April 21, 2012
We warily gave our approval when in late February Gov. John Hickenlooper created a task force assigned to "help clarify and better coordinate the regulatory jurisdiction between the state and local governments over oil and gas operation."
We said it was appropriate for the governor's office to get involved in the ongoing friction between state officials and local governments and to provide the latter with clarity about how much jurisdiction they have over drilling within their boundaries. But as we feared, that really didn't happen.
After reading summaries of the findings, we think they can be summarized as a call for little more than improved communication. We think Colorado's county and municipal governments need more help than that to answer their constituents' questions. Routt County residents want answers about how far county commissioners can go to apply their own zoning regulations to safeguard public health, homes and businesses, as well as how much the state is doing to protect air and water quality in areas of energy exploration.
We think the task force could have looked into the politically charged question of whether existing penalties are being adequately applied to energy companies that run afoul of regulations.
According to a report by the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which relied on Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission documents for its research, relatively few fines are being imposed. In 2010, 319 notices of alleged violations were issued to 93 operators, but just 10 operators received penalties. The numbers of alleged violations went down to 230 in 2011 and penalties were issued to 22 operators.
Officials have said in public hearings here that they tend not to issue fines if alleged violations promptly are addressed.
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We think the task force could have looked into whether it needs to recommend that the governor direct the Oil and Gas Commission to be more proactive in applying fines for the intended purpose of deterring practices that allow violations to occur.
The Oil and Gas Commission employs 15 field inspectors and a supervisor to visit oil and gas drilling and production sites and ensure that state regulations are being met. It's reassuring, to a degree, that one of those 15 inspectors is based in Steamboat Springs.
However, the Earthworks report, which was published last month, found that in 2010 there were 43,000 active wells in Colorado and 16,228 inspections were carried out. Those numbers show that more than half of the wells aren't inspected annually.
We think the task force could have urged the governor's office and the state Legislature to consider new ways to make energy companies fund a more robust inspection.
The task force urged local governments to assign a "local government designee" to communicate directly with Oil and Gas Commission officials. And that's a good idea. But Routt County already has acted on that invitation from the Oil and Gas Commission and has a very competent person in place. The task force recommendation that the Oil and Gas Commission hire additional local government designee coordinators could speed up those interactions, but it's hardly a substantive change.
As the novelist Ernest Hemingway once said, don't mistake motion for action.