Group advocates “West Slope way’ on energy development

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

A group of business leaders, community groups and elected officials has called for a more cooperation and less regulation for energy development, an approached termed the “West Slope way.”

“The West Slope way is about collaboration, cooperation and education,” said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese.

Pugliese was among those who spoke at a press conference in Rifle held in conjunction with a meeting of an energy development task force.

While the task force is charged with addressing land use conflicts related to energy development in Colorado, industry supporters at the press conference called for a collaborative approach.

“We don’t need new regulations,” said Mike Samson, a Garfield County commissioner who also serves as chairman of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado. “We encourage the task force to look at what works in Garfield County.”

Those efforts include cooperation with private environmental assessments, community forums, energy advisory boards and a local government designee program, Samson said.

Pugliese said an energy master plan like the one developed in Mesa County offers local governments a management tool that obviates the need for further state regulations.

Several of those who spoke at the press conference also expressed fears additional regulations could hamper an industry that plays an important role in the regional economy. “The oil and gas industry lifts up all other business on the West Slope,” said Keira Bresnahan, chairwoman of the Piceance Energy Action Council.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper created the task force earlier this year as part of a compromise to strip energy development initiatives from the general election ballot. The task force includes representatives of the energy and agricultural industries as well as conservation groups and local governments.

Hickenlooper charged the task force with reviewing oil and natural gas regulations in the state, particularly as they relate to issues that prompted environmental groups to prepare the ballot measures — granting local communities the right to further regulate oil and gas development, bans on development  and hydraulic fracturing and the possibility of increasing the required setback for oil and gas drilling and production operations from buildings. The task force is expected to make recommendations to the Colorado Legislature by Feb. 27.

After cancelling previously scheduled meetings on the Western Slope, the task force met at the Farm Fresh event center in Rifle for two days to discuss local controls, setbacks and other energy related issues.

The meeting opened with Kirby Winn, Garfield County energy liaison, describing the county’s regulatory approach to energy development and continued with a local government panel offering its views. Most members of the panel — including representatives from Garfield, Mesa, Moffat and Rio Blanco counties — argued the energy industry is already regulated sufficiently, that further regulation would harm the local economy and county governments already possess the tools to adequately regulate land use and to cooperate effectively with the industry.

Tim Corrigan, a commissioner from Routt County, where no drilling is currently taking place, was the sole local government representative who offered an opposing view. Corrigan argued for changes in state regulation to give local governments more authority to regulate oil and gas development, including bans and moratoriums currently not allowed under state law.

The task force then heard from a panel of residents. Doug Saxton, a member of the Battlement Mesa Concerned Citizens environmental group, told the task force that setbacks of up to 1,500 feet, up from the current 500 feet, should be imposed. Saxton said drilling threatens the residential community and also threatened his wife’s health. But Carrie Couey, a Silt area rancher, thanked the oil and gas industry for its support of the community. “I challenge the naysayers to come take a tour and see how agriculture and energy work together.” Couey added, “This industry deserves respect, but instead is slapped with regulations.”

Amy Williams, a resident of Routt County, also urged the task force to hold off from recommending new regulations: “The governor and Legislature need to slow down and let the existing regulations work.” She also questioned the premise of the task force. “We should act out of principle, not fear of ballot initiatives. Fear produces bad policy.”

The task force also heard public comments, selecting speakers in a random draw. The majority of the comments were supportive of the industry, many of them advocating for the “West Slope way” and cautioning against new regulation. But the task force also heard from environmental activists, many of whom presented the task force with a variety of maladies they attributed to drilling and hydraulic fracturing.