Essay from former Garfield County Oil & Gas Liaison, Judy Jordan

Note: This blog first appeared on From the Styx

During my four years as Garfield County Colorado’s oil and gas liaison, I spoke with hundreds of people all over the county.  I never heard anyone say anything different from this: “We need oil and gas.  I just think they should do it right.”

Doing it right starts with the BOCC because they have power to make this industry a responsible tenant. But the current commissioners have not lived up to that responsibility. Here is what I mean.

1) All residents should be treated equally and oil and gas reps shouldn’t have priority over everyone else.  

When I was at Garfield County, industry reps had a direct line to commissioners, who took their calls immediately. If the industry rep didn’t like something I did, they were on the phone to John or Larry in a second. Meanwhile, when regular citizens had a complaint, they were told to call me. If they didn’t like the answer and went to a commissioner to appeal, the call was given back to me again. This kind of preferential treatment that tells the industry they’re important and other citizens aren’t is wrong.

2) The BOCC has shirked its responsibility to hold operators’ feet to the fire.

Samson has gone around saying only the state has authority over oil and gas. He came asking me that question and I told him the truth — which is that local government has authority that can be used as well. He had selective hearing because he continued to go on passing the buck. Local government has authority it can use. They have legal authority. When I was asked to speak about this at Routt County forums, one of my fellow panelists was a Boulder attorney who laid out in very clear terms what the local government legal authority is with respect to oil and gas. They also have good old fashioned peer pressure. Here’s an example of peer pressure.

In 2009, a Rio Blanco County commissioner called me and said, “You need to see what’s going on with these wells on our border. It’s a mess.” So I drove up to the border south of Meeker and he was right. There was trash all over the BLM land there, hazardous waste dumped, and condensate left in open, unlined pits.  A BLM employee told me he had seen a bear in one of the pits and I sampled the pits and found it to be full of hydrocarbon sludge. Neither BLM nor COGCC would take action, so I asked commissioners from Rio Blanco County and Garfield County to attend a meeting with the operator. I specifically invited Mike Samson because he had taken over primary responsibility for oil and gas on the BOCC. He wouldn’t go. But two Rio Blanco County Commissioners went and we managed to convince the operator to clean up some of the mess. That’s how disinterested in fixing oil ans gas problems the current BOCC is.

Then I came back to Garco and showed this video (above) to the BOCC and they did nothing. Instead, John Martin joked to Mike Samson about hunting when I showed video of the elk and deer prints near the waste pits. Do voters really think that’s right?

3) The County should have and in the future still could advocate for better regulation on the part of COGCC, which has much more regulatory authority, instead of undermining their staff’s recommendations.

In 2008, the state COGCC undertook a major overhaul of its regulations. It proposed many changes that would have better safeguarded the health, safety and welfare of garco people and wildlife.

I gathered comments from my fellow department heads from Road & Bridge, Building & Planning, Environmental Health, Sheriff’s Office, and County Attorney. I consolidated all of our comments in a draft to be sent to COGCC from the BOCC. John Martin and Larry McCown called a special, private “work session” with staff and proceeded to strike out all the comments we had made that would have supported improvements in the regulations.

4) The BOCC created a public forum for discussion about oil and gas, called the Energy Advisory Board (EAB), but they refuse to take advice from it and they allow the industry to suppress public input.

The original purpose of the EAB was to provide education to the public, exchange ideas to promote better cooperation and understanding and advise the BOCC.  But Susan Alvillar from Williams, Doug Dennison from Bill Barrett (BBC), and Sher Long from EnCana complained that the public comments cause bad public relations for the industry. They said they would no longer participate if Marion Wells got to sit on the EAB, if the public comments were not contained, and if the EAB meetings continued to be televised. Martin sent Jankovsky to take the industry comments in a private meeting that I attended and changes were made to the EAB to please Encana, BBC. and Williams (btw, NONE of these complaints or requests came from Chevron or Oxy). In fact, Chevron has exposed some of its well construction practices that go beyond the state regulations and should be held up by Garco as an example of stellar behavior on the part of the industry, in contrast with some of the shameful things that Williams, BBC, and Encana have done.

5) Oil and gas is important, but it shouldn’t be the only game in town because other industries can even out the booms and busts, and the county could lead in the right direction if only the BOCC would choose to do so.

In 2007-2008, Garco hired a Denver consulting firm to do a regional socioeconomic study and determined that the top 3 sectors employing Garco residents were construction, tourism, and government.  Oil and gas was not even in the top 3!

However, the county makes a lot of revenue from the industry from ad valorem and severance taxes. Garco is extremely energy rich. We have not only oil and gas, oil shale and coal, but we have strong wind, geothermal, and especially solar resources. We could strengthen our economy by taking the lead in solar, especially. If the county were to make a significant investment in solar, we could attract manufacturers and more installers and we could reduce our own government energy expenses. We have good infrastructure to  support manufacturing, with abundant electricity, an attractive place to live for workers, and rail and interstate for transporting feedstocks and products.

But the BOCC continues to make rotten investments in yesterday’s fossil fuels.  Shortly after I arrived in 2007, I was handed the keys to a hybrid county car to drive to work. The county had made the decision to invest in greater fuel efficiency and technology development and added several if these vehicles to its fleet.  In 2011 they reversed all that and started buying gas powered vehicles. That’s going backwards, people! They supported the construction of a natural gas station in Rifle, which can’t make it financially because no one else is stupid enough to invest in a backward technology. We need to move forward and recognize that renewables are the future even if natural gas is a critical part of the equation for now.

6) The BOCC refuses to adopt smart growth land use practices.

Not only did they reverse the comprehensive plan, but when faced with the need to expand county offices, did they support local business and walkable communities by building or updating their offices in Rifle? No, they chose to build an office out at the airport, where employees have to drive to get to the post office or a restaurant at lunch instead of being able to walk to local businesses. Backwards again!

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