DENVER – Colorado natural-gas and oil inspectors rarely issue fines and oversee too many wells to do a good job of keeping the state’s people safe, an environmental group charged Tuesday in a new report.
The allegations from the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, based in Durango, are the latest shots that conservationists have fired at Gov. John Hickenlooper for his support of the natural-gas and oil industry.
Hickenlooper has created a task force to study whether local governments should have oversight of natural-gas and oil drilling. Industry supporters prefer oversight exclusively by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“We find it very alarming and want first of all for the governor to understand the oil and gas commission is not enforcing its regulations. If we took away local control, we would have a true disaster on our hands in a lot of counties,” said Gwen Lachelt, director of OGAP.
Lachelt is running for La Plata County commissioner as a Democrat.
Her group’s report criticizes Colorado for employing only 15 inspectors to oversee 43,000 wells, giving the inspectors a workload twice as heavy as regulators in other energy-rich states.
In 2011, the state issued 22 penalties, even though it flagged 230 possible violations, the report says.
“COGCC should assess more fines, increase maximum penalties and hire more enforcement staff,” the report recommends.
Hickenlooper has called for less duplication and conflict among local and state regulators, said his spokesman, Eric Brown.
“The governor’s track record when dealing with oil and gas companies and the environmental community is built on mutual respect and collaboration. These are complex issues, and we will continue to work together to find the right balance between environmental protection and public safety and a vibrant, responsible industry,” Brown said.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said the COGCC has doubled its staff in the last seven years and plans to bring on two more inspectors. The agency has the most comprehensive environmental rules in the county, he said.
Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, also defended the COGCC, saying inspectors have been smart to give companies time to correct problems before they issue fines.
“That’s the goal of enforcement is compliance – not punitive action,” Dempsey said.
OGAP began assembling the report nearly a year ago as part of a broader look at state’s energy regulations. The group plans to release others reports on New Mexico, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York soon, Lachelt said.
Colorado’s report was released first because the Legislature is about to tackle the state budget, and OGAP wanted to bolster the case for adding more inspectors, Lachelt said.