Lepore says COGCC needs more staff to handle inspections

January 16, 2015

Colorado, task force

[Photo by Grace Hood, KUNC radio]

Oil & Gas task force meeting at 4-H Building in Greeley on January 15, 2015. [Photo by Grace Hood, KUNC radio]

I listened to most of the livestream for the task force meeting in Greeley on Thursday, January 15. Of the five task force meetings thus far this one was the meatiest with a slew of concrete ideas and proposals tossed out for discussion.

The bulk of the morning session included a presentation from COGCC Executive Director Matt Lepore followed by a question & answer discussion with task force members. During his presentation, Lepore asked for at least 16 and up to 22 additional staff to handle inspections. Dennis Webb at the Daily Sentinel was the only reporter who covered this significant story.

More staff members sought for state conservation board

The director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is recommending adding 16 to 22 more staff members primarily to allow for increased inspections of wells and other facilities.

Matt Lepore made the recommendation Thursday to Colorado’s oil and gas task force. It had asked for his thoughts on inspection needs and other issues on which it is considering making recommendations to Gov. John Hickenlooper for protecting communities and minimizing conflict while allowing reasonable access to oil and gas resources.

Lepore told the task force the COGCC looked at seven states including Colorado and found that on average, they have one inspector for every 1,621 wells, with Colorado having an inspector for every 1,959 wells.

But the number for each of the seven states ranges from one for every 371 wells in Alaska to one per almost 3,000 wells in Wyoming.

“So in my mind the right number remains somewhat elusive,” Lepore said.

He said the COGCC would need to add five inspectors to have about one for the 1,621-well average among the states.

However, Lepore said it doesn’t suffice to add inspectors alone, because environmental, engineering and hearing personnel also are needed to provide support to follow up on what inspectors find.

He’d also like to see a data analyst added to help respond to constant requests the agency gets for information, and two new people dedicated to taking in and tracking complaints about oil and gas operations. The agency has been working to improve its process for handling complaints.

These staff additions would total 16, although Lepore said that ideally the agency would ask for 22.

Lepore said the agency received a “big boost” in 2013 when the legislature approved increasing its staff by nearly 30 full-time-equivalent positions. It has 97 positions altogether.

Despite that growth, “we tend to be playing catch-up with staffing,” Lepore said.

One of the reasons is rules rewrites and additions the agency has been undertaking that make it more complicated for staff to implement its rules.

Lepore said about 75 percent of the agency’s funding comes from a levy on industry based on the value of oil and gas production, with federal grants and severance taxes being among other funding sources. With oil prices having fallen sharply, “our revenue forecasts for the next fiscal year don’t look quite the same as they did last week, last month, back in July,” Lepore said.

Task force member Jon Goldin-Dubois, president of the Western Resource Advocates conservation group, said adding five inspectors would mean Colorado was just shooting for average and wells still generally would be inspected less than once a year.

“I guess I’m a Colorado exceptionalist and I would argue that we can do better and we should try to do better,” he said.

Regarding setbacks, Lepore talked about comprehensive planning as a way to address specific well sites and facilities that will be located close to residential areas. In an exchange with task force member Matt Sura, Lepore expressed a preference for looking at well sites on a case-by-case basis, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach of 1500 or 2000 feet.

Oil and gas chief: Local government needs more say in siting oil, gas wells

GREELEY — The movement of large-scale oil and gas operations into Front Range suburbs is creating pressures not being addressed by state rules, Colorado’s top oil and gas regulator said Thursday.

In testimony to the governor’s oil and gas task force, Matt Lepore, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said development of shale oil has transformed the industry in the state.

Multiple wells are being drilled from large sites and collection facilities are also bigger and moving closer to developed areas.

“This is the crux for me,” Lepore said. “Scale, proximity, intensity.”

One solution, Lepore said is “some kind of comprehensive planning process that brings in industry, COGCC, local government and the community” …

Lepore also suggested that the state hire an ombudsman who would work separately from the COGCC. For example, an ombudsman could field questions and concerns from surface rights owners about surface rights agreements. Even though handling surface rights agreements is not part of the COGCC’s responsibility, they do get questions from surface rights owners, indicating the need for a state response.

Oil & Gas Task Force Ponders Recommendations In Greeley

… Lepore said one concern is that production facilities that have up to 30 oil storage tanks can be situated near communities and they cause long-term problems and concerns for the public.

“They do have emissions and they do make people uncomfortable,” said Lepore.

The task force discussed larger setbacks for the production facilities from the current 1,000 foot limit …

… Lepore said the COGCC is currently reviewing more restrictions on noise and vibration at well sites, and more restrictions on how flares are used near oil and gas sites. He also suggested that the state create an ombudsman position to answer questions about surface use agreements and other public questions. The idea for the ombudsman is to operate separately from the COGCC …

These are all excellent suggestions especially coming from an agency that consistently places the mineral rights above all other rights and displays obvious bias toward the oil & gas industry. But there’s a catch. First the task force would have to agree to support Lepore’s proposals and move them forward for consideration by the state legislature, which would have to approve funding to hire  additional COGCC staff to handle inspections and follow-up, and to facilitate comprehensive drilling plans, plus establish and fund a separate state ombudsman. And then Hickenlooper would have to sign the legislation.

Receiving a recommendation from the task force to expand the state’s “regulatory regime” in and of itself is quite a hill to climb. But then to expect budgetary support from a slate of politicians already heavily under the influence of oil & gas money is the El Capitan of mountain climbs. Just look at the who’s-who of donors to the Governor’s inauguration festivities this week: click here.

This was definitely designed to make us all feel better. But we shouldn’t get our hopes up.

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