Environmental protections and concerns over Front Range influence took top priority during a public meeting between Durango-area residents and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The public comment meeting marked one of many changes in how the commission functions since Senate Bill 19-181 became law in April. The bill strengthened health and safety protections and local authority over oil and gas development. Now, the COGCC is focused on an intense rulemaking process – and the public is getting a say.
“It is a huge task, a huge lift,” said Jeff Robbins, director of the COGCC, during Friday’s meeting. “We are rolling up our sleeves and committed to getting it done.”
SB 181 fundamentally changed the COGCC. The primary focus for regulators is health and safety rather than a mission to “foster” oil and gas development. The directors of the state agencies for natural resources and public health and environment serve as non-voting members on the commission.
Local governments have the authority to regulate the impacts of drilling. Local regulations can also be equally or more strict than state regulations.
SB 181 tasked the commission to write new rules in nine areas, addressing technical components of drilling, such as flow lines and well-bore integrity requirements, and big-picture restructuring, such as mission change and alternative location analysis.
The legislation requires four of the nine rulemakings to be finished by July 1. The COGCC deliberates and adopts the final rules with input from other state offices.
COGCC commissioners are visiting communities around the state to hear public feedback about the current “straw dog” rules, as Robbins called them. The drafted rules are not set in stone but should encourage new and better proposals down the road, he said.
More than 50 people joined the meeting in Durango, including La Plata County commissioners, Southern Ute Tribal Council members, commissioners on the COGCC, public health and safety officials, and residents from around the region.
Some spoke about noise issues with current well operations or concerns that nearby operations will affect property values.
“I support anything in the new rulemaking that protects people’s property values,” said Carole McWilliams, a Bayfield resident.
SB 181 applies only to new oil and gas development, and many issues can be resolved by going to local governments, Robbins said.
Several people emphasized protecting wildlife, water quality, air quality and the environment in general.
Others advocated for agricultural representation on the commission or emphasized that regulations that work on the Front Range might not be effective in rural areas.
Tom Dugan, an attorney who has worked with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, spoke positively about the tribe’s relationship with the COGCC.
“The tribe very much appreciated the deference that was paid to the tribe from legislators and the COGCC,” he said, adding that it was a national model on how to work together, particularly concerning a checkerboard reservation.
La Plata County has fought for decades to have more of a voice in oil and gas development. The fact that the director of the COGCC was listening to the public’s concerns at a meeting in Durango showed how much has changed, said Gwen Lachelt, La Plata County commissioner, who joined the live-streamed meeting remotely.
“I’ve been sitting here watching my computer tonight with a lot of tears,” she said. “I want to thank (Robbins) and the governor of Colorado for this really historic opportunity.”