Removing industry members from well permitting body among most crucial oil, gas reforms pitched

Oil and gas law experts are split on a provision within a proposed sweeping legislative reform of the fossil fuel extraction sector that would reduce the influence of industry members on the state‘s well permitting agency.

Proponents of the bill — , which passed the state Senate with crucial changes to the mission and makeup of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — say health, environment and wildlife professionals need more voice on the body that votes on whether to approve drilling proposals.

To achieve that, the bill — now awaiting House action — proposes reducing the number of members on the nine-person commission that must have substantial experience in the oil and gas industry from three to one.

Currently, seven members of the commission are appointed by the governor, and one must have training in wildlife or environmental protection, along with three industry experts and a local government official. Two members are the heads of the state public health and natural resources departments.

But the bill, if signed into law, would add requirements for one member apiece with wildlife and environmental protection experiences, instead of just one member with either background, plus one member with substantial training or experience in public health, with those members effectively replacing the two industry members who would be removed.

Critics of the bill, which contains many policy tweaks, point to this measure to change the makeup of the commission by removing industry officials as evidence its backers are trying to hamper new drilling efforts rather than enhance regulations for public health, wildlife and the environment, which is what bill supporters have said to justify the proposal.

Longmont attorney Mark Herber, who represents private clients in oil and gas matters, would support expanding the commission‘s total size by adding additional public health and environmental conservation experts without removing industry leaders.

“I think that creates more of a balanced approach,” Herber said, “leaving the experience there, and adding a few more seats. If there is concern that is not being perhaps fully addressed by the existing characterization of folks on the board, I would be more in favor of additional seats.”

He added there are both pros and cons that could come with a shift in the commission‘s structure.

“When you have industry that is so tied in with government, there is good and bad. These are the folks that do know what‘s happening on the ground and with people. I don‘t know that they have any ill will, but they do have some motives to support the industry and job growth,” Herber said.

The bill‘s provisions that would encourage the state Air Quality Control Commission to bolster scrutiny of emissions from oil and gas operations, as well as its other provisions, are less concerning than altering the COGCC makeup, to Denver-based oil and gas lawyer Jed Franklin with Spectrum Legal Group.

“I don‘t think anyone has a problem with the health and safety stuff, but there is concern about the industry being boxed out,” Franklin said. He would also support adding seats for health and wildlife experts without removing industry members.

“My gut is that the idea is to restrict (oil and gas) development. It‘s not pure safety and health reasons,” Franklin said.

But Sophia Mayott-Guerrero, transportation and energy advocate for the Conservation Colorado environmental group, points out that industry members would not be removed from the commission‘s rulemaking process as stakeholders who are counseled. An amendment to the bill made in the state Senate since it was introduced would allow for one commission member to have either experience in soil contamination remediation or technical expertise on the commission‘s rules, meaning two industry members could technically remain on the board if a governor were to appoint someone with technical rule expertise and not soil expertise.

“A lot of the changes to the COGCC in this bill are about refocusing and rebalancing how this regulatory body works to put health and safety first,” Mayott-Guerrero said, contending the industry should not regulate itself.

Industry group Colorado Petroleum Council suggested the new rulemaking with which the commission would be tasked by the other measures within the bill passage may not be handled as well with fewer extraction sector members on the commission.

“Senate Bill 181 would significantly reduce the level of technical expertise on the commission while simultaneously filling the Commission‘s docket with new, highly complex rulemakings,” council spokesman Ben Marter stated. “From a purely practical standpoint, this element of the bill makes very little sense.”

If the bill becomes law, Gov. Jared Polis could replace two industry representatives on the commission whose terms are set to expire July 1 and appoint the additional wildlife or environmental conservation expert and public in their places.

Here are the current commission members and their backgrounds, according to the :

• John Benton, Chairman. A Republican with substantial oil and gas industry experience, Benton is a gathering systems manager for Caerus Oil and Gas. Graduated with bachelor‘s and master‘s degrees from Colorado School of Mines. His term limit expires July 1.

• Howard Boigan, Co-Vice Chairman. A Democrat with substantial oil and gas industry experience, Boigan works as a lawyer for his small firm focused on transactonal, financial and regulatory matters in oil and gas law and policy. His term expires July 1, 2020.

• Tommy Holton, Co-Vice Chairman. A Republican who is the commission‘s local government official as a Fort Lupton city councilman and chairman of the Weld County Planning Commission. He also continues to operate a family farm. His term expires July 1.

• Ashley Ager. A Democrat with soil conservation or reclamation experience, Ager is a retired professional geologist who is now a deputy director of an environmental impact mitigation firm. She has expertise in soil and groundwater assessment and regulatory compliance at oil and gas production sites. Her term expires July 1, 2020.

• James Hawkins. A Democrat with substantial oil and gas industry experience, Hawkins has worked 37 years in petroleum engineering, including 28 with Amoco Production Co. He has also worked for BP America as a regulatory engineer. His term expires July 1.

• Kent Jolley. A Republican, mineral royalty owner and third-generation rancher in the New Castle area, Jolley has had extensive experience with oil and gas companies mining on his ranch since 1980. His term expires July 1, 2020.

• Erin Overturf. A Democrat with environmental or wildlife protection experience, Overturf is a lawyer and Chief Energy Counsel with Western Resource Advocates, a regional conservation organization. She was the to tap minerals from 4,000 acres beneath Boulder County land from wells located just over the Weld County line last year. Her term expires July 1.

• Dan Gibbs is a member because he is executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.

• Jill Hunsaker Ryan is a member because she is executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

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