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Colorado: Fossil fuel industry seeks to block citizen comments at formal hearing on new oil and gas drilling rules

aerial view of oil and gas drilling near Colorado homes

Oil and gas drilling near schools and homes in Firestone, Colorado. Photo courtesy Shane Davis, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Chapter.

Industry says personal statements on impacts fall outside the evidentiary scope of the commission hearings

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The battle over proposed new oil and gas drilling regulations in Colorado has intensified in advance of next week’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearings on new setback requirements for energy development.

Energy companies, represented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association, sought to block some citizen testimony, saying it’s irrelevant and non-scientific. The motions filed by the industry groups requests that some submitted testimony be stricken from the record because it’s “harassing and abusive” to the industry.

Read the citizen statements here. Read the industry’s motions here and here.

Conservation groups advocating for stronger environmental and health protections, specifically for more distance between drilling sites and residential areas, said the motions are insulting to citizens of Colorado.

“It’s undemocratic. It’s a bullying tactic. They want citizens to be worried about whether they’ll be allowed to speak,” said Mike Chiropolos, of Western Resource Advocates, adding that the current draft rule tilts too far toward industry interests.

“Colorado families are getting sick, and they are tired of waiting for the state to act.  The homeowner testimony that industry seeks to exclude shows why greater setbacks are needed,”  Chiropolos said. “Does anybody besides the Colorado Petroleum Association think the State should ignore citizens and base its decision solely on industry’s wishes to continue drilling a stones’ throw from houses?”

Industry officials described the motions as a procedural step needed to ensure a fair hearing by the commission in a quasi-judicial proceeding. The Colorado Farm Bureau, Colorado Association of Home Builders, and Colorado Cattlemen’s Association filed similar motions to strike the statements.

“This is a legal rule-making proceeding by appointed citizens … and so, in a way, they are the judges are deciding this rule,” said Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Doug Flanders.  “From our standpoint, there are certain legal standards regarding testimony … certain evidence that you can and can’t allow … We’re really trying to hold the line on what kind of evidence and testimony can be submitted,” Flanders said.

According to a statement from the industry, the testimony “fall outside of the  parameters  for inclusion in the administrative record,” as provided by the state’s formal rules of evidence for these types of hearings.

Guided by a hearing officer and representatives of the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will have to decide before the hearings whether the statements will be accepted for the record.

“It is a little disappointing when you here people saying that the industry is trying to suppress statements … To say that these folks would not be heard is misleading. We are not stopping them,” he said, adding that the appropriate venue is during the public comment phase of the proceedings.

During a conference call Friday afternoon (Jan. 4), several citizens affected by oil and gas drilling operations spoke about their experiences with oil and gas drilling operations near their homes, describing various ailments they attribute to air pollution and other impacts.

Altogether, 12 people from Garfield and Mesa counties submitted written testimony.  Their health complaints include becoming nauseous from the fumes from nearby oil and gas operations, burning eyes, coughing, and the disruption of living in constant dust and noise from oil and gas drilling. Many also have concerns that their property values have plummeted now that they are surrounded on all sides by oil and gas wells and production facilities.

“It’s too late to save most of western Garfield County. But if the commission acts responsibly and promptly we may save families and communities on the front range,” said Rifle resident Tom Thompson.

There are also a number of witnesses that are living near oil and gas operations on the front range that have similar complaints of the noise, dust and odors of living within oil and gas industrial operations. They say the state has been slow to respond to citizen requests for improved monitoring and health safeguards, as the drilling boom has simply overwhelmed the state’s ability to keep pace.

As part of the rulemaking, the COGCC is considering air quality and noise mitigation requirements when drilling occurs near homes. However, in rural areas, the 500-foot setback would be waived simply by an oil and gas company demonstrating that they have mitigated their impacts “to the greatest extent economically practicable.”

Environmental advocates say it’s important for the commission to hear from citizens who have seen their lives disrupted by oil and gas drilling operations before making a decision.

“They’re worried that, if the truth comes out, the commission will vote for rules that actually protect public health,” Chiropolos said.

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