Ritter administration to propose overhaul of oil, gas commission
DENVER – With five of seven members on the state agency that oversees oil and gas development having ties to the industry, Gov. Bill Ritter’s administration said Wednesday it is drafting legislation to change that.The bill, proposed by the state Department of Natural Resources, would also increase the number of people on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to nine from seven while decreasing the members with ties to the industry from five to three.Legislation would also direct the commission to pay more attention to environmental and public health issues.Evan Dreyer, Ritter’s spokesman, said the legislation, expected to be introduced soon, likely would expand the panel to include representatives from conservation groups, agriculture, state and local governments and royalty owners.”We are still very much in the discussion phase,” Dreyer said. “We’re talking with all the various stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, sportsmen, local governments, wildlife advocates and others.”During the gubernatorial campaign last year, Ritter said he would consider revamping the oil and gas commission because of concerns that it’s too cozy with the industry.Colorado is seeing record rates of drilling as higher prices and a demand for more domestic energy production have touched off a natural gas boom in the Rockies.The Colorado oil and gas commission is charged with promoting the “responsible development” of oil and gas. Critics contend the agency’s mission, coupled with the requirement that five of seven members have a background in the industry, results in an emphasis on development to the detriment of health, environmental and landowner issues.”Typically, you don’t get to have the fox guarding the hen house. The fox might be happy, but it’s not great for the hens,” said Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition.Greg Schnacke, executive vice president of the trade group Colorado Oil and Gas Association, declined to comment until the bill is introduced.Dreyer said the legislation would expand the commission’s focus to cover environmental and public health issues and create formal working relationships among the commission, Division of Wildlife and the state Department of Public Health and Environment.Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, and Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, have worked with state natural resources chief Harris Sherman on the bill and will likely sponsor it.Isgar said the hope is that expanding the commission’s size and mission will create a more balanced approach to oil and gas regulation and reduce the need for more legislation.”There needs to be people (on the commission) with expertise, but more than just oil and gas expertise,” Isgar said.Industry officials have said the oil and gas business is one of the most scrutinized and have resisted regulation by state agencies other than the oil and gas commission. Two industry groups sued in 2005 but then relented when the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission passed regulations of stormwater runoff from oil and gas construction sites.The oil and gas commission has agreements with the health department to enforce clean-water and hazardous-waste laws, though it has no health experts on staff.People in some of the most intensely developed areas have complained of health problems they believe are caused by air or water pollution from gas wells. Commission staffers investigate complaints, but says they have found no evidence of contamination in most cases.The commission did fine EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) $371,200 in 2004 after gas leaked into a creek south of Silt in western Colorado and was traced to one of the company’s wells. Some of the money is funding a two-year study of whether gas operations are causing health problems.Another issue is the rights of people who don’t own the minerals under their property. Companies that own or lease the minerals have the legal right to “reasonable use” of the surface to extract the minerals.
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