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Ex-COGCC Chair Pans Loss of Industry Voice Reform Bill Would Bring

March 22, 2019
A drilling rig is seen Thursday on a hill above Erie near Weld County roads 5 and 6.

Oil and gas industry leaders are clashing with Boulder County lawmakers over whether reducing the number of members with professional backgrounds in extraction on the state’s drilling oversight agency will bolster its protections of Coloradans’ health, safety and natural environments.

Energy sector officials insist to ensure drilling is done safely, its workers need a louder voice on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission than they would have if a controversial industry reform bill in the Statehouse is signed into law.

The bill — SB 181 , which has passed the Senate and is moving through House committees — proposes sweeping changes to how the industry is regulated by state, city and county governments.

But its critics from the industry have been especially concerned by a measure within the bill to reduce from three to one the number of commission seats that must be filled by experts within the oil and gas field. The two removed from the nine member commission would be replaced by professionals in public health, wildlife and environmentalism.

Right now, the three commission members with substantial oil and gas industry experience — James Hawkins, Howard Boigan and John Benton — respectively have petroleum engineering, natural resources legal expertise and energy company management backgrounds.

Former COGCC chairman Peter Mueller, who is now a senior vice president of EcoVapor Recovery Systems , a well site technology firm, said he believes a balance of backgrounds from the industry is beneficial. He questions which type of industry member — legal or technical — would be prioritized by a governor making an appointment to the commission.

When Mueller joined the commission, there were only five members with three seats reserved for those with experience in or education specific to oil and gas development. In 2008, Gov. Bill Ritter expanded the commission to nine seats, still limiting three to industry members, Mueller said. Prior to Ritter’s changes, five of the commission’s seven members had to be industry experts.

“Critics from industry during my time on the commission complained that commissioners with industry experience were harder on operators because we knew its capabilities, so when Gov. Ritter packed the commission with people without experience in oil and gas, he inadvertently reduced insight, oversight and enforcement,” Mueller said. ”... Bear in mind that the acting oil and gas commission director” Jeff Robbins, who was announced this week as permanent commission director, “is also an attorney without technical expertise.”

An amendment to the bill made in the Senate would allow a governor to appoint one commissioner with experience in either soil contamination remediation or technical expertise on the commission’s rules. If that language survives the House, it means two industry members could be on the commission at the same time if a governor foregoes appointing a soil expert.

Bill backer Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, said he would support keeping that flexibility for potentially a second industry voice on the commission if it brings those opposed to the bill closer to supporting it.

“I’m not going to make good the enemy of perfect,” Singer said.

But he rebutted the notion that shaking up the makeup of the commission by reducing industry influence would potentially lead to safety issues, noting a 2014 risk assessment of the state’s extraction activity warned of flowline leaks impacting the environment and recommended the commission further monitor their installation and operation.

“The fox has been guarding the henhouse for too long,” Singer said, adding the assessment’s warning still didn’t prompt the right action to prevent the 2017 Firestone home explosion that killed two men. That explosion was caused by a leaky flowline attached to a nearby well.

“The regulators didn’t do enough,” he said.

Supporters of the initiative to remove industry members from the commission also point out fossil fuel leaders can still provide input on the commission’s rule-making processes.

But industry group the Colorado Oil and Gas Association questions whether the numerous rule revisions the commission would be tasked with by other provisions in the bill — such as greater air quality monitoring requirements at drilling sites — could be appropriately overseen by a commission with only one industry member.

“If signed into law, 181 will require a dozen different technical rule makings, and if that’s the case, it would be wise to have a strong functional knowledge base driving those decisions, rather than a political agenda,” association CEO Dan Haley stated through a spokesman.

Boulder County leaders argue the proposed commission change-up would give a broader range of consideration to resident, wildlife and environmental safety, which they say is overdue.

“The (oil and gas) commission has approved every drilling permit, even after 15 explosions and four deaths in 2017. Public safety should be their No. 1 priority and the commission makeup should reflect that,” Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones stated via a county spokesperson.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .