Gas and oil rules

Bill to realign state commission oversteps

There is a continuous tension between allowing gas and oil development in Colorado and ensuring that it takes place in a way that does not unduly harm public health, the environment, wildlife and communities where drilling occurs. Ensuring that the tension does not lead to either ramrod development practices or obstructing access to gas and oil resources is the important work of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It is a function that the COGCC largely performs well, particularly after a 2008 revision of its governing rules and makeup.

A measure pending in the Colorado Legislature would tweak those guidelines with the intention of further protecting public health and the environment. House Bill 1269 would redefine the COGCC’s mandate to not “waste” petroleum resources by leaving them in the ground, instead allowing gas and oil to remain untapped if accessing the fuel would be harmful to the environment. It also would prohibit any future commissioners from being gas and oil industry employees while they serve on the COGCC. While well-intended, these provisions are not necessary.

There was a time when they would have been, though, but the imbalance in industry’s favor was addressed relatively effectively in a 2008 rule-making process that broadened the scope of the COGCC’s makeup to include those representing public health and environmental perspectives, and diluting industry’s strength on the commission to just three of nine COGCC members.

Despite criticisms that industry representation puts the fox in charge of the henhouse, it is wholly appropriate for those with expertise in gas and oil production to be involved in making decisions about how it takes place in Colorado – provided they are not the only ones doing so. The current composition of the COGCC meets this test, and there is no obvious need to alter it as significantly as HB 1269 would.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, seems to imply that gas and oil production is a nefarious undertaking that requires disproportionate controls to keep it from running roughshod over Colorado’s landscape and communities. While in their heart of hearts, some in the industry might fantasize about a Colorado that has no checks on drilling and while some environmentalists would love a no-drilling-anywhere-ever rule, both sides of the spectrum seem to recognize that balance is essential to regulating any inherently divisive practice. While the current COGCC rules and composition are not perfect from any one side’s perspective, they are not sufficiently flawed as to demand so dramatic a change as that which Foote proposes.

The 2008 rule rewrite was an exhaustive process that left both ends of the spectrum feeling as though they lost some things and gained others. It was about as close to consensus as such a polarized issue could have reasonably come.

The makeup of the commission is relatively balanced, and the operating environment for industry requires consideration of and mitigation for a broad spectrum of issues that the gas and oil operators would rather not concern themselves with. There certainly are places where the rules do not go far enough to please neighbors to gas and oil production, but those would be better considered on a case-by-case basis than by an impulsive overhaul of the COGCC. Now is not the time for House Bill 1269.