At a hearing on June 24, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission completed its transition from a nine-appointee volunteer group to the five-member professional panel created by Senate Bill 181, which Governor Jared Polis signed into effect last year.
That law launched an extensive rulemaking process to develop environmental protections for oil and gas operations around the state, which required more hands-on staff. Members of the volunteer commission would meet for a day or two every six weeks, but the five new commissioners will be full-time salaried state employees, each receiving $150,000 a year starting July 1.
About an hour into the hearing, Governor Jared Polis gave videotaped thanks to the volunteer commissioners who'd stepped up last year, and also lauded the accomplishments of previous commissioners. “Your expertise on the environment, industry, local government, public health and wildlife really enriched us all," he said. "And thank you for really being able to put yourself through and listen to all those voices out there.”
Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, then announced the new members of the commission, all of whom have extensive backgrounds in environmental work, public health, land planning or oil and gas: Priya Nanjappa, who has worked as director of operations for Conservation Science Partners Inc. and as program manager for the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies; Karin McGowan, who is resigning from her position as deputy executive director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to take this post; former Gunnison County Commissioner John Messner; and Bill Gonzalez, who has worked as the land manager for Occidental Petroleum.
Jeff Robbins, who was the director of the COGCC in 2019, will be the chairman of the new commission; before working for the COGCC, Robbins had a law firm in Durango that provided counsel for surface issues arising from oil and gas operations. Julie Murphy, current COGCC chief of staff and senior policy advisor, will replace Robbins as the commission's director.
As dictated by law, Robbins, McGowan and Gonzalez will serve four years, and Nanjappa and Messner for two. Gibbs described the commission as “an all-star group of people that are really passionate and will do just a fantastic job for people in Colorado.”
The new commissioners have their work cut out for them: While the volunteer commission successfully completed three of the rulemaking duties required by the statute, some big ones remain. One of the biggest is the COGCC's mission change. Before passage of SB-181, the mission was to foster development of oil and gas resources to achieve the "maximum efficient rate of production." Under the new law, its mission is not only to "foster," but to "regulate" oil and gas development in a way that protects public safety, health, welfare and the environment.
Another significant rulemaking requirement is the alternative-location mandate, or company consideration of different locations when proposing where to drill a well. In his video, Polis noted that the cumulative impacts of oil and gas operations will become increasingly important in the coming years. And at the hearing, Weston Wilson, science advisor for Be the Change, a grassroots environmental group, spoke to the even greater health challenges that the commission may face as more oil companies file for bankruptcy.
Extraction Oil and Gas, the third largest oil and gas producer in Colorado, according to the COGCC, filed for bankruptcy on June 14; Whiting Petroleum filed for bankruptcy on April 1. While demand has decreased during the pandemic, an oil glut and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia had many companies struggling with heavy debt even before the pandemic.
“As a number of people have pointed out, you have an emergency on your hands,” Wilson told the commission. “The expectation is that you’re going to get more bankruptcies, resulting in abandoned wells becoming the ward of the state.” He suggested that bonding requirements for companies in financial distress be updated, especially as they shut down wells that could later become safety concerns.
Adams County resident Suzanne Brundage echoed his concerns. “Our community is riddled with old, sometimes abandoned wells that have leaked and exposed my neighbors and me to toxic chemicals that degrade our air quality and leak into our ground,” she told commissioners. Brundage has mild asthma and said she has days when it is difficult to breathe. She reiterated the need to deal with improperly closed wells, starting with cleaning up the 275 currently identified "orphan" wells left behind by bankrupt companies.
As the new chair, Robbins thanked not just his fellow commissioners, but Colorado residents concerned about the state. “COGCC continues to be active and engaged and protective of health safety welfare in the environment as we work through this global pandemic,” he said.
He cited the "broad consensus" that led to wellbore integrity rules enacted on June 10, and said he wanted such consensus to carry through as the new commissioners work on mission-change rulemaking that will be completed later this summer. Enactment of all the new rules has been slightly delayed, he noted; the deadline was moved to November 1.
In the meantime, permits are still being approved. To date in June, Robbins reported that the COGCC has approved eleven new locations and 123 new wells.
As for some old wells, “I was on the phone the next day with that operator to ensure that they had plans in place, to ensure that all of their operations on a day-to-day operation perspective were continuing and were protective of health safety welfare,” he said of Extraction.
At the end of the meeting, exiting commissioner Erin Overturf, deputy director of the clean-energy program for Western Resource Advocates, recounted some of the tasks that the COGCC has completed as it works toward the state's science-based climate goals, including school-setback rulemaking, flow-line rulemaking, and the recently completed wellbore integrity rules.
“The professional commission has a hard task ahead, but I am very confident that they are up to the challenge,” she said. “The simple and unavoidable fact remains that in order to maintain a healthy, livable climate for ourselves and for future generations, we just have to do more.”