New study exposes COGCC’s environmental crimes

November 3, 2014

COGCC, Colorado, oil & gas industry

COGCC Executive Director Matt Lepore (l) and Williams VP & General Manager Dave Keylor respond to questions about the Parachute Creek spill at Energy Advisory Board meeting - Thursday night in Rifle

COGCC Executive Director Matt Lepore (l) and Williams VP & General Manager Dave Keylor respond to questions about the Parachute Creek spill at Energy Advisory Board meeting in Rifle on April 4, 2013

A new study examines the environmental crimes of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Two Colorado State University sociology professors, Tara Opsal and Tara O′Connor Shelley utilized green criminology in their investigation of how the COGCC handles complaints. The CSU Center for the Study of Crime and Justice uses this definition of green criminology:

“Green Criminology is the analysis of environmental harms from a criminological perspective, or the application of criminological thought to environmental issues. As elsewhere in criminology, this means thinking about offences (what crimes or harms are inflicted on the environment, and how), offenders (who commits crime against the environment, and why) and victims (who suffer as a result of environmental damage, and how), and also about responses to environmental crimes: policing, punishment and crime prevention. On a more theoretical level, green criminology is interested in the social, economic and political conditions that lead to environmental crimes; on a philosophical level it is concerned with which types of harms should be considered as ′crimes′ and therefore within the remit of a green criminology.” [Gary R. Potter, London South Bank University, United Kingdom, in “What is Green Criminology?”]

The title of their study speaks for itself: Energy Crime, Harm, and Problematic State Response in Colorado: A Case of the Fox Guarding the Hen House? For this study, Opsal and O’Connor Shelley downloaded 2,444 individual complaints from the COGCC database. From those complaints they collected 732 addresses and mailed out letters requesting interviews. One hundred people responded and they were able to complete 65 interviews across the state. There was also a follow-up mail-in survey which participants completed last spring.

On full disclosure, I received a letter from Opsal and O’Connor Shelley in August 2013. The letter was somewhat vague, no mention of green criminology. The researchers simply stated that they got my name and address from the COGCC complaint database and wanted to know if I would participate in a study about how the COGCC responds to complaints. Because I love research and studies, I agreed to be interviewed and participate. Tara Opsal interviewed me in in Silt, in September 2013. During our interview she didn’t go into any details about the study. She was focused on my observations from my encounters with COGCC staff and about the agency in general. I’ve been interviewed about oil & gas issues dozens of times by dozens of people but my interview with her was one of the best. She’s a thoughtful listener and she never plied me with leading questions. When she wanted to change the subject, she said so. Intelligent. Straightforward. Objective. (And we’re both Cheeseheads.)

Here is an excerpt from “Conclusions” in Energy Crime, Harm, and Problematic State Response in Colorado: A Case of the Fox Guarding the Hen House?

… An important consequence of this ideological process is that most of our participant’s experiences were never formally defined as problematic and certainly not as illegal; thus, here we documented the ‘‘dark figure of environmental crime—those harms presently unreported, undocumented or unacknowledged as environmental crimes’’ (White 2008:107). A second important consequence is that these particular distortions enable the state to appear to provide regulatory oversight. By not outright denying (Larrain’s fourth distortion category) citizen claims and, instead, taking reports, engaging in (albeit weak) ‘‘investigations’’, and formally finding that the industry is not responsible for harm allows the COGCC to maintain the appearance of an impartial state agency with regulatory responsibility …

… In sum, our work elucidates the constructed and blurred boundaries surrounding what is criminal, what is harmful, and the role of the state in determining those boundaries via ideological distortions. Thus, we suggest that not only is the fox guarding the henhouse in Colorado; the fox and industry are actually one in the same. Both are tied to the treadmill of production in that the industry needs to grow without regulatory oversight while the state provides a facade that industry is well regulated while simultaneously minimizing the culpability of industry or the reality of the harms that they cause. Thus, it appears that the fox participates in the treadmill of production but is also on a path more aptly characterized as a treadmill of destruction (Hooks and Smith 2004).

When Frackenlooper and all the other politicians blather on about how Colorado has the toughest regulations on oil & gas production in the nation, remember this – those regulations are not being enforced. This study proves it.

In this next article, Elizabeth Miller at Boulder Weekly gives you an excellent, in-depth look into the study. If you think you already know how much the COGCC protects the oil & gas industry, well you don’t. Read this article.

Is the way the state handles oil & gas complaints criminal?
Criminologists find troubling pattern of state agency under-reporting complaints and leaving Coloradans feeling voiceless

When two Colorado-based green criminologists turned to examine the heated local issue of oil and gas development with their area of focus in mind — not what is a crime, but what should be considered a crime — they found a pattern among the response received by the thousands of residents who have complained to the state about the oil and gas industry. What they’re reporting in a recently published study may change the conversation about development for those thousands of Coloradans affected by the oil and gas industry. They raise the idea that the way Colorado handles complaints, which leaves complainants feeling unheard and their concerns going unresolved — as though they are victims who find no recourse through the regulatory body charged with policing the industry — may actually be criminal, and these people are victims of environmental crimes …

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