DENVER – As the oil and gas industry has clawed its way back from the restrictive drilling policies of former Democratic Governor Bill Ritter and the effects of the national recession, the green lobby has quietly opened a new front in the battle against energy development in Colorado: Local governments.
Across the state, environmental groups – often driven by out-of-state interests – have exerted political pressure on city councilors and county commissioners in an uncompromising effort to halt new energy projects.
It’s that kind of politicization that county commissioners in Garfield County may have been seeking to avoid on Monday when they considered a proposal designed to implement an independent monitoring plan to provide communities near development areas with reliable data about the impact of natural gas development on air quality.
“The overall goal of this project is to produce a high-quality, peer-reviewed assessment of air emissions and dispersion from well drilling, hydraulic fracturing and flowback activities in Garfield County,” CSU professor Jeff Collett Jr., the principal investigator on the project told the Glenwood Post Independent.
In addition to experts from Colorado State University, the proposed three-year study will also include advisors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Land Management and state officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, according to a county press release.
“In order to better understand air quality associated with oil and gas development, it is essential that we take this important next step of collecting high quality air quality data near oil and gas development activities,” said Paul Reaser, Garfield County environmental health manager.
Garfield County’s apparent effort to resist the hardball tactics of environmental groups that have been on display in places like Longmont and Commerce City in favor of an approach based on gathering scientific data, may provide a roadmap for other local governments seeking to strike a responsible balance between energy development, public safety and environmental protection.
“The County is most definitely ahead of the curve,” said Reaser. “Air quality management has traditionally been more of a State function, but Garfield County has utilized the expertise of many stakeholders to ensure the quality of our air monitoring data is high and utilized to better understand overall air quality.”
“It’s cutting edge, the study we are considering,” said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. “In the Health Impact Assessment, we considered eight issues, and felt that all could be mitigated except one. The one we needed scientific data on was air emissions surrounding oil and gas operations. We not only have funding to assist us from gas industry partners, but also we have cooperation with gas operators in letting the Colorado State University researchers on the well pads to gather this data.”
According to a 2011 Garfield County report, more than 3,500 county residents are directly or indirectly employed by the oil and gas industry. The statistics do not include residents of other counties who work in Garfield County. Those directly employed by the industry earn salaries 240 percent of the statewide average, according to Labor Department statistics.
The commissioners will meet in September to consider whether or not to approve the proposal.