DENVER – When an oil and gas task force meets this week, members are likely to discuss a proposal that would create an independent office aimed at easing tensions between the local communities and energy industry.
Gwen Lachelt, co-chairwoman of the task force and a Democratic La Plata County commissioner, said she will propose the idea after speaking with an energy industry ombudsman who worked in Alberta, Canada.
Task force members will meet Monday and Tuesday in Denver at the Colorado Convention Center. A final meeting is scheduled for Feb. 24.
“It’s a way for the state to be continually informed of these conflicts,” Lachelt said of an ombudsman’s office. “(Conflicts) are not going to go away overnight; they’ve been here for 30 years or more.”
Tension between the communities and industry has grown as hydraulic fracturing made its way to more populated areas along Colorado’s Front Range.
Fracking uses chemicals, sand and water, injected under high pressure into rock formations underground to allow gas and oil to flow through cracks into wells.
Communities are concerned about health and safety, as well as noise and traffic.
A handful of local governments enacted bans, moratoriums and stringent regulations on fracking, either stemming from citizen initiatives or ordinances enacted by counties and municipalities. Several of those are facing legal challenges.
The issue came to a tipping point last year when U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, financed ballot proposals that sought to increase setbacks of wells and offer greater local control. Polis pulled his initiatives as part of a compromise with Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, to create the task force.
“It’s part of the charge of the task force to make those recommendations to see how we as a state can address those regulatory issues and harmonize those local and state regulations,” Lachelt said.
There were 54 proposals on the table as of Friday. It would take a two-thirds vote of the 21-member task force to advance any legislative recommendations.
Hickenlooper said he is willing to extend the task force’s timeline if needed.
One way to reach agreement on policy is through an independent office, Lachelt said. Rick Anderson, who served as an ombudsman in Alberta from 2012-13 as part of a pilot program, said his office received positive feedback from the community.
“A large part of the role can be in helping people navigate and understand the various policies, programs and regulations that are out there,” Anderson said. “Very often you will find ... conflict between one regulation versus another jurisdiction.”
As part of the ombudsman’s duty, a report would be issued for the public and state policy leaders to review. Similar reports are issued by independent monitors who oversee law enforcement activities.
Part of the issue is building trust, both Anderson and Lachelt said.
Bruce Baizel, a Durango-based energy program director for the environmental group Earthworks, said an independent office could help bridge divides and build trust.
“If there was somebody independent that people could make a complaint to and know that they’re not beholden to the dual mandate, that might help with the trust,” Baizel said. “Certainly, if there was an independent, third-party perspective in handling of complaints, that might have some merit.”