Task force cites “health” as a priority

It wasn’t all cookies and Kool-aid at Governor Hickenlooper’s and Congressman Jared Polis’s oil & gas task force meeting. Like a refreshing breeze across the gaspatch, La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt opened with the truth.

Oil, gas task force kicks off
La Plata Commissioner Lachelt would rather have ballot questions

… “When I heard that the ballot initiatives would go away as part of this compromise agreement, I was really disappointed,” Lachelt said. “It was a monumental effort to collect the signatures required to put these initiatives on the ballot. Taking those decisions out of the hands of the people of Colorado felt, and still feels, like a real blow to the democratic process” …

… Lachelt acknowledged the difficult task ahead, including balancing the concerns of community members and activists with the needs of the industry. The process has been political and polarizing since the beginning.

At Thursday’s meeting, a noticeable police presence lined the walls of the standing-room-only, packed hall. Co-chairman Randy Cleveland, president of XTO Energy Inc, said that there is “a lot of passion and energy around this topic.”

Lachelt has worked on gas and oil accountability in Southwest Colorado for more than 25 years, founding Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project in 1999 and serving as director before becoming a county commissioner in the 2012 election.

“There is a lot of skepticism out there that we will fail, that this process is designed to fail,” Lachelt addressed the audience. “When I was asked to serve as co-chair, I agreed, one, because citizens would be on an equal footing with industry on this task force. I also agreed because this is a historic moment in Colorado” …

Eagle Ford TX rash

Colorado oil and gas task force IDs legal, health issues as priorities [emphasis added]

“(The issue is) horizontal drilling and lots of wells going in near people,” said Jeff Robbins, a Western Slope attorney on the panel.

The use of horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing, or fracking, has set off a Front Range oil boom.

“These are superwells,” said attorney Matt Sura, a panel member who represents homeowners and municipalities. “They look more like a refinery” …

… Panel member Sara Barwinski, a member of the grassroots group Weld Air and Water, said: “The public is really concerned about health and safety …”

… The task force agreed it needs more information on health issues, the technology used by the industry, what other states and their local governments are doing on oil and gas issues, and details on the legal issues of local control and surface and mineral rights and agreements …

While the task force convened and everyone made their little speeches, the Center for Western Priorities released a white paper titled Opportunity Knocks: How the Governor’s Oil and Gas Task Force Can Find Success, that suggests the task force focus on these four key areas:

  1. Clarifying the rights of local governments to regulate oil and gas development
  2. Establishing setbacks for drilling activities near waterways
  3. Making the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission website more accessible and transparent
  4. Closing hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure loopholes

“The governor’s task force has an incredible opportunity to strike the right balance between our state’s oil and gas economy and reasonable protections for our communities, families, and open spaces,” said Greg Zimmerman, Policy Director at CWP and co-author of the report. “The task force’s recommendations will have a significant impact on the state’s oil and gas policies, and it’s critical that they address with surgical precision the challenges resulting from the current oil and gas boom.”

“We can have both energy development and protect our way of life here in Colorado,” said Jessica Goad, Advocacy Director at CWP and the co-author of the report. “We thank the task force in advance for tackling these important issues, and continuing to make Colorado a national leader when it comes to promoting responsible development that protects our communities and our land.”

It is disappointing that this white paper only mentions health in the context of human health impacts of oil & gas development twice in one paragraph on Page 4, and only in passing as a task of the COGCC – as frightening a thought as that is.

These problems are compounded by the perception – both historically and under Governor Hickenlooper – that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is too close to the industry and has discounted legitimate concerns about the impacts of oil and gas drilling on communities, health, and quality of life. It was not until 2007, when the Colorado legislature passed a law to refocus the mission of the COGCC, that the agency began putting the protection of the environment and public health on equal footing with its mission to promote development.

Emma Parr and her father Bob began having nosebleeds after moving in to a home surrounded by gas wells in Wise County, Texas. [Photo: Earthworks]

Emma Parr and her father Bob began having nosebleeds after moving in to a home surrounded by gas wells in Wise County, Texas. [Photo: Earthworks]

Perhaps CWP considers public health to be under the purview of local governments and/or setbacks. However it is and should be a separate and equally important issue in front of the task force.

What we need — and what the task force should negotiate — is a commitment from the state to approve funding for researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health and Colorado State University (Fort Collins) to continue and improve on incomplete studies and conduct the necessary new studies to better understand the impacts of oil & gas drilling on human, animal, and environmental health.  Overwhelming concern about public health and the environment was the catalyst behind the those bargain-chip ballot initiatives in the first place. Therefore public health should be the task force’s number one top priority.

Read more about the task force members –

Out of balance: An in-depth look into Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force

The next oil & gas task force meeting will be held in Durango – October 9-10. See schedule.

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