The Brighton City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to rescind its short-term moratorium on oil and gas development passed earlier this month in order for new regulations to be drafted and approved.
The emergency ordinance states that officials would dismiss their previous action based on assurances from energy officials there were no oil and gas operators planning to request a drilling permit before the new regulations could be implemented in July.
The initial decision by the city council prompted objections from Minority Whip and state Rep. Kevin Priola (R-Henderson) who said the moratorium would be devastating for the local economy and “sends a terrible message about the business environment here.”
Brighton’s decision to reconsider its action also follows a report by the Colorado Observer on Priola’s objections, which included the city’s hiring of oil and gas attorney Matthew Sura, whose background involves environmental activism in opposition to certain fracking operations on the Western Slope.
Sura described his viewpoints last fall during a 90-minute lecture, available on YouTube, that gives insight to his activist history, as well as his current work as a lawyer representing property owners and local communities in negotiations and legal disputes with the oil and gas industry.
In the video, Sura recalled passing out bottles of water with information bearing skulls and crossbones in an earlier campaign against energy development. He suggested that athletic teams visiting a high school in Greeley “might want to consider gas masks,” a comment Sura says was made in jest.
Sura declined to discuss his work for Brighton or salary in a previous interview and referred those questions to city officials. A spokeswoman for Brighton also declined to discuss it and told the Observer to file an open records request.
Sura began working for the City of Brighton on Feb. 18 to initiate the moratorium and present it to the council for approval, which it did on March 4. That’s according to the contract Brighton City Manager Manual Esquibel signed on Feb. 27 with Sura that was obtained by the Observer through the Colorado Open Records Act.
The open-ended contract says Sura is being paid $175 per hour plus travel expenses for his work, and that he is responsible for a scope of services relating directly to the new city rules that will regulate future oil and gas development.
Specifically, Sura’s job is to provide legal services in drafting the oil and gas ordinance and a memorandum of understanding, and offer revisions on issues that relate to the protection of the water supply, wear and tear on city streets, spills that could contaminate groundwater and ditches, and potential floods, the contract said.
Sura would also examine whether the city should enact a watershed protection ordinance, draft one if necessary then present it to the council.
Sura would be responsible for gathering feedback from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and securing their support for the ordinance and memorandum. He would also meet with members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association to “facilitate their acceptance” of the city’s actions.
Finally, Sura would “meet with planning commission and city council, members of the public, and other entities as assigned to facilitate the acceptance of the regulations,” the contract said.
Priola stated his objections to Sura’s participation in the process in a letter to the mayor of Brighton and city council and in an interview with the Observer.
“The credibility of his involvement as representation for Brighton is questioned,” Priola said in the March 14 letter.
“This does not seem to coincide with Brighton City Council’s historic stances of being a business friendly community and making rational collaborative, effective decisions. Not only does this present a tremendous conflict of interest, but also it absolutely hinders a fair due process to our people,” Priola said.
Sura challenged Priola’s description of his involvement with specific anti-fracking groups listed in the letter to the city council as “completely inaccurate.”
Sura told the Observer on Monday that he has since spoken to Priola to provide the lawmaker with a better sense of what the City of Brighton is trying to accomplish.
“The city council and the City of Brighton had no intention of shutting down oil and gas development in any way, we’re just trying to get some legal regulations in place to protect their groundwater and their constituents,” Sura said.
Sura declined to comment on what prompted the city council to consider rescinding the moratorium.
Sura described himself as an “activist” and “community organizer” during the Oct. 8 lecture series called FrackingSENSE 2.0 that was sponsored by the Center of the American West, Boulder County and the AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network.
As an official of the Western Colorado Congress in the mid ‘90s, Sura said his job was “first in working to protect places that I cared about, in communities that I cared about … ”
“To be really up front and blunt, I bring that bias with me when I look at research,” Sura said.
The lecture series web page says that “For 17 years, Matt has organized Colorado communities directly affected by rampant oil and gas development and worked for oil and gas regulatory reform.”
“I am working with a lot of clients to benefit from the oil and gas industry,” Sura said during the lecture. “I’m also working with a lot of communities who don’t see the oil and gas industry as a huge benefit and therefore they’re trying to prevent some of what the oil and gas industry is trying to accomplish in their community.”
Sura recounted specific incidences in which he took on the oil industry and described one situation in Garfield County while showing a picture of a lit match igniting gaseous vapors coming off Divide Creek in 2004 — a picture that evoked a similar contentious image made famous in the divisive documentary, “Gasland.”
“There is the extremely controversial claim that if you have a water well that is located near oil and gas facilities, it is more likely to end up with oil and gas contamination — and you wouldn’t think that that would be that controversial, but it is,” Sura said.
Sura conceded later in the speech that such occurrences can be due to swamp gas, but maintained that in this instance at least three water wells had been contaminated by energy development.
In another campaign against energy development near Grand Junction, Sura said, “This may be unfair, but we were at one point at a farmers’ market and we were giving away water that had information about our concerns and a skull and crossbones on the side to make the point that you don’t want to contaminate your water supply.”
He described the industry as “very dangerous workplaces that can be dangerous to the people living nearby” and cited several studies, including one that said living near such a development would double the risk of cancer.
Sura suggested that residents in Greeley would have to wear gas masks soon because of oil and gas development near residential areas.
“We’re talking about the oil and gas industry. We know that there’s going to be additional health risks because they’re dealing with carcinogenic and toxic chemicals,” Sura said.
While most “fracktivists” oppose hydraulic fracturing to reach natural gas and claim that dangerous chemicals are used in the process, Sura contends that the real concern is with the natural gas that is extracted.
“We’ve all been kind of programed to fear fracking and hydraulic fracturing and that’s what we should be concerned about, but (a study) proved that really the bigger concern is what’s actually coming out of the ground,” Sura said.
Local control is “critical” to regulating the industry because “if something is being taken away from you, your land or your favorite place to hike, or the community that you knew, our your peace and quiet, you want to have the ability to address that,” Sura said.
“And right now, all those decisions are being made in Denver by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and you don’t really have that opportunity for input,” Sura said.