The Polis administration’s oil and gas regulatory tour returns to Northern Colorado in the coming days, with hearings and so-called listening sessions scheduled for Thornton and Erie on Sept. 25 and 26. If you are an oil and gas worker or a citizen who supports the state’s energy sector, be advised: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is stacking the deck to favor fringe environmental groups.
I say this because of what I saw from the Polis administration last month on the Western Slope.
After rushing Senate Bill 181 through the legislature, Governor Jared Polis and his advisers planned a series of regulatory hearings across the state, including Glenwood Springs on Aug. 21. The hearings were part of the governor’s promise that SB-181 would be “good for the energy industry” and “good for workers.”
The COGCC’s regulatory tour would make up for the way oil and gas workers, rural communities and other stakeholders were ignored in the stampede to pass the oil and gas bill – or at least that’s what we were supposed to believe.
But in Glenwood Springs, the Polis administration showed its true colors. The views of the energy industry, energy workers or community leaders who support this vital sector of the Colorado economy were marginalized yet again.
Dozens of people who attended the Glenwood Springs hearing were effectively blocked from testifying because of the way meeting was run by Jeff Robbins, the director of the newly comprised COGCC. After planning a tight schedule and giving witnesses specific times to speak, COGCC officials changed the schedule last minute. Public comment periods and expert panels were delayed by hours, forcing many people with work commitments to leave before they could voice their concerns directly to the regulatory agency.
The selection of Glenwood Springs as the location for the hearing further affirms the Polis administration’s disregard for the individuals and families who work in the energy industry. By selecting Glenwood Springs, the commission consciously discouraged members of communities proportionately more impacted by energy development from attending the hearing.
In response, I invited the COGCC to hold a meeting in Rangely to observe our community which has demonstrated, through genuine stakeholder dialogue, that the energy industry and Coloradans can mutually benefit from energy development.
The commission’s suppressive tactics played into the hands of anti-oil and gas groups, who had nowhere else to be and happily filled the speaking slots of energy workers, industry experts and community leaders who couldn’t stay indefinitely.
Sidelining these stakeholders gave “keep it in the ground” groups a louder voice than they truly represent. It was like the SB-181 debate at the State Capitol all over again, with officials doing everything possible to amplify the voices of groups that oppose oil and gas development at the expense of all other stakeholders.
Thankfully, some local elected officials, rank-and-file energy workers and concerned citizens still managed to testify and steer the debate back towards the facts.
“We have better air now with 11,000 active wells than we did in 2008 with 6,000 wells,” Garfield County Commissioner John Martin testified. “You have to ask yourselves, ‘Why?’ It’s because of the involvement of the county, the industry and our citizens.”
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese testified on the COGCC’s “alternative siting analysis” process, which has yet to be defined and could extend the permitting process indefinitely.
Pugliese reminded the COGCC that oil and gas operators already spend months, if not years, evaluating alternative sites, balancing interests of landowners, local governments, the environment and many other factors before applying for a permit application.
“There is a fine line between helping people find common ground and finding excuses to delay the approval of permits,” Pugliese warned. “If the evaluation of alternatives never ends, a final decision is never made, and a permit is never approved, drilling will never take place.”
Shortly before SB-181 was signed by the governor, Director Robbins promised that oil and gas permitting would continue “business as usual” under the new law. Since then, however, the rate of oil and gas permitting has plummeted.
At an Aug. 28 energy conference in Denver, Governor Polis even dismissed the concerns of oil and gas workers as “silly” and could barely bring himself to say that these professionals and their families are still welcome in Colorado.
Those comments shocked some observers, but they didn’t surprise me – I had seen the Polis administration’s bad faith on display in Glenwood Springs a week before the governor took the stage in Denver.
The hearings this week in Thornton and Erie are a chance for the Polis administration to turn things around and start making good on their promises. I wish my counterparts on the Front Range the best of luck, but as things stand, I am not confident the Polis administration will conduct itself any better than it did in Glenwood Springs.
Konnie Billgren is executive director of the Rangely Area Chamber of Commerce.