As a county commissioner, I am charged with protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment.
Since my first campaign in 2012, I made clear I would do all I could to reduce toxic pollution in the San Juan Basin. Indeed, many La Plata County voters chose me for that reason, and for my 30-years of first-hand experience with the community impacts – both good and bad – of oil and gas policies and practices.
As a defender of the public interest, my positions have long drawn the ire of an oil and gas lobby that does not similarly prioritize the welfare of La Plata County residents. Most recently, I am being attacked for my work with the Western Leaders Network.
I founded WLN this year to unite local and tribal elected officials across the Interior West – regardless of political affiliation – to more effectively defend our communities against organizations backed by multibillion dollar multinational corporations. Against the power of their dollars, WLN – and La Plata County as a member – has power in numbers; the organization made an impact when more than 120 local and tribal officials across the West supported the Bureau of Land Management’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule.
As Commissioner Brad Blake has shown, nothing precludes commissioners from outside employment, nor precludes commissioners from accepting reimbursement in order to travel to Washington to lobby on county-related issues. La Plata County’s dire financial situation does not allow commissioners to travel to represent the county in Denver and Washington, D.C. As long as expenses are covered by a nonprofit that does not receive more than 5 percent of its income from for-profit entities, state policy allows nonprofits to cover elected officials’ travel expenses.
Blake traveled to Washington, D.C., in June to urge continued federal funding of the Bonita Peak Superfund site near Silverton; these expenses were covered by Trout Unlimited. Western Leaders Network paid for my travel when I visited with several U.S. senators in May to urge support of the BLM methane rule (the Senate voted to uphold that rule).
As many know, we live under the largest methane cloud in North America. With tens of thousands of natural gas wells on federally managed public lands in northern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, the BLM’s Methane Waste Prevention Rule (adopted in December 2016) plays a key role in reducing methane waste.
I’ve long held that the rule is a win-win: Methane (natural gas) that doesn’t leak from wells and pipelines is money in the bank for oil and gas companies, mineral owners and American taxpayers. Moreover, reducing methane emissions reduces the toxic pollution released along with it, improving air quality and protecting public health.
Blake and I both represented ourselves as county commissioners during these trips. Some argue that I should have disclosed that WLN paid for my travel expenses, and my role within the organization. Western Energy Alliance (and its online publication Western Wire), a large oil and gas lobby organization, claims that constitutes conflict of interest and ethics violations. I disagree. As WLN’s founder, I know very well that its interests are the same as those that I represent as a La Plata County commissioner.
The one legitimate point industry lobbyists do have is that I should have made my WLN role inescapably clear both to La Plata County residents and to those I spoke to in Washington on the county’s behalf. I believe this so strongly that I’ve advocated the La Plata Board of County Commissioners begin disclosing any potential conflicts of interest before all board hearings. Moving forward, I will be perfectly clear in what roles I’m serving.
Transparency, upholding values of good governance and ethical behavior are essential to me. I hold these values and my duty to La Plata County in the highest regard. I also promised to protect our public health, safety, welfare and the environment. Outside financed, politically motivated attacks will only make me stronger and more determined to do so.
Gwen Lachelt is serving her second term as La Plata County Commissioner. Before being elected, Lachelt served as founder and Director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project.