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Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission ignores federal lands issue at meeting on new regulations in Glenwood Springs

GLENWOOD SPRINGS–The Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) held a meeting in Glenwood Springs last week and heard testimony from Western Slope residents on their feelings about the new regulations being created as required by Senate Bill 19-181. The meeting is one of many in which the COGCC will solicit public comment on the new regulations.

But there’s a major obstacle lurking in the background no one seems interested in acknowledging; an expired agreement between Colorado and the federal government authorizing the state to regulate oil and gas operations on federal lands, with the clock ticking on its renewal.

SB 181, signed into law by Governor Polis April 16, makes sweeping and restrictive changes to the regulation of the oil and gas industry in Colorado.  Indeed, a COGCC staff PowerPoint presentation at the meeting listed at least 19 new criteria that would apply to well permits.

At the meeting public speakers were divided on the need for and scope of the new regulations as they might apply to western Colorado.

“This bill came about because of what’s going on in the Front Range,” state Senator Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, told Complete Colorado in an interview Friday. “We don’t have the [air quality] attainment issues that they have in the Front Range.” Scott attended and spoke to the COGCC at the meeting.

The impacts of oil and gas extraction on communities is starkly different on the Western Slope. Most exploration takes place far from towns and cities, and on federal land or where the mineral rights are owned by the federal government.

“Eastern Colorado is private lands, western Colorado is about 70% federal land,” said Scott. “We have dynamic differences between the two regions.”

One aspect of the large amount of federal land in western Colorado is that the new COGCC rules currently being formulated are not necessarily aligned with the interests of the federal government.

Beginning in 2009 permitting and management of oil and gas operations on federal land by the state was authorized by a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by then Governor Bill Ritter, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service (FS).

That ten-year agreement expired June 30.

The federal government gave the state a six-month extension to renew the MOU under the existing terms. That offer will expire Dec. 30.

The problem, says Scott, is that the MOU is not open to renegotiation, only renewal is being offered as originally agreed upon. This means that even if it is extended, the COGCC cannot change the way it regulates oil and gas exploration on federal lands in western Colorado to comply with the new structure and requirements of SB 181.

To implement those changes, whatever they might be, the state would have to completely renegotiate the MOU with the federal government.

That, Scott says, cannot happen until all of the new regulations have been implemented, a process that could take years given the pace of regulatory reform so far.

“The COGCC is on a collision course with the federal government,” said Scott. “The federal government has one set of energy policies, the COGCC is developing a brand new set of energy policies that don’t match the MOU.”

“For anybody to believe that they are going to have any thing to even sit down with the BLM to discuss by the end of December is ridiculous,” said Scott.

Scott is also skeptical that the federal government is going to accept the new regulations because of the number of impediments to permitting and extraction of mineral resources the new law imposes.

“Are they going to be able to negotiate new MOUs or is the federal government going to say, ‘you are going against our energy policy therefore the MOU is completely cancelled, now we will take over our federal lands and you can do whatever you want on your lands?’”

Scott was surprised that none of the press reports of the meeting mentioned this significant obstacle to the new law even after he broached the subject.

“I didn’t expect some big amount of press on what I said, but I’m surprised to see that nobody even touched what I said with a 10-foot pole,” said Scott. “[The press] got all the commissioner’s statements, they got everybody else’s who said anything, but when it came to me, it was like, ‘Nah. We don’t want anybody to think that there’s any problem.’”

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