This story is updated with a response from Matt Sura.
An environmental activist and fracking opponent was hired by the City of Brighton to help draft new regulations for local oil and gas development, prompting concerns from a key lawmaker that the input would taint the process or lead to a permanent ban.
Matt Sura, an environmental lawyer and former director of the Western Colorado Congress, has spoken at anti-fracking events and was reportedly involved in efforts opposing hydraulic fracturing operations in Weld County, the largest producer of oil and gas in the state with 15,000 wells.
Minority Whip and state Rep. Kevin Priola (R-Henderson) said he is concerned about the economic effects in Brighton if the final recommendation is a long-term moratorium on energy development, and expressed particular unease “the city has retained Sura, who has a track record of doing this.”
Sura disputes Priola’s characterization of his work and association with environmental groups, and says he is an oil and gas attorney who helps landowners and mineral owners negotiate lease agreements with the industry.
“So far from being a fracktivist, I actually work on oil and gas development,” Sura said.
In an interview with The Colorado Observer, Priola said his concern is that Brighton will follow a pattern similar to what occurred in Boulder, where the city council approved a one-year moratorium in June to block oil and gas drilling permits there, while Boulder voters approved a ballot measure in November to institute a five-year ban.
“There are three to four thousand employees that live and work in Brighton — Halliburton made a large commitment and has an operation there — and it’s just really concerning to me as a native of Brighton, that the Brighton City Council appears to be mirroring what the City of Boulder has done,” Priola said.
“I’m concerned that in a sense, they’ve already decided which way they’re going to go by the way they’ve already handled the first portion, of creating a moratorium when no moratorium needed to be implemented at all,” Priola said.
In a March 14 letter to Brighton Mayor Richard McLean and the city council, Priola expressed his “sheer disappointment” with their decision to hire Sura citing the “credibility of counsel,” as well as the economic impact that a ban on energy development would have on the community.
“This is concerning as Mr. Sura has either worked with, or been closely associated publicly with extreme environmental groups such as Frack Free Colorado, Frack Free Boulder, Protect our Loveland and Citizens for Clean Air,” Priola said in the letter.
“The credibility of his involvement as representation for Brighton is questioned. 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 those anti-fracking organizations as “completely inaccurate.”
“I have represented Citizens for Clean Air at the recent rule-making at the Air Quality Control Commission, but the other organizations I’ve never represented and don’t belong to and haven’t worked with,” Sura said.
“His views, he’s welcome to them, but they’re not very informed views because I’ve never talked to the man and he doesn’t know me and clearly doesn’t know the kind of work I do,” Sura said.
Sura’s name appeared on a Sierra Club poster for an event billed as “What the Frack?” with fracktivist Shane Davis at the Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins in September 2012.
Asked about his participation in that event, Sura said, “I will talk to anybody that invites me. I’ve also showed up to events on behalf of the oil and gas industry.”
“Promoting the truth about oil and gas development is part of what I think a responsible oil and gas attorney would want to do, and so I do respond to a lot of different engagements and I think that’s only fair,” Sura said.
Sura is also named as a participant in another Sierra Club event with Davis held November 2012 at the New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins titled “Colorado oil and gas industry failures and how the state has failed its citizens.”
Asked to describe his comments at Sierra Club events, Sura said, “I’m answering questions about how oil and gas development is regulated in the State of Colorado.”
Asked about his work with the City of Brighton, how he became involved in the regulation process or how much he is being paid, Sura said he was not at liberty to talk about his work and referred those questions back to the city.
A National Journal article published in November noted the presence and participation of Sura at a Weld County anti-fracking meeting, where a strategy discussed was to avoid a ballot initiative and to instead urge the Greeley City Council “to place a moratorium on new drilling projects within city limits until tougher regulations were in place.”
The article said that Sura represented the anti-fracking group for free.
The Brighton City Council approved a suspension on oil and gas development during a March 4 meeting saying the “emergency” ordinance was needed for four months to revise its regulations.
The suspension would also allow time for the “educating of (the) new planning commission and city council members regarding oil and gas development,” the council said in the announcement.
Kristen Chernosky, public information director for Brighton, confirmed that Sura would be paid by the city to help draft the new rules.
“He is an attorney that’s been hired by the city to assist with the process of the regulations,” Chernosky said. “He’s assisting our city attorney in putting together the regulations with our staff.”
The team drafting the new regulations includes Sura, City Attorney Margaret Brubaker, and the city’s community development department, Chernosky said.
Chernosky, who was returning a phone call request Thursday morning to interview McLean, was also asked how Sura was selected to help write the rules and how much he would be paid. She said she would find out those details and provide the information to the Observer, but later sent an email saying another open records request should be submitted to obtain that information.
The Colorado Observer has submitted two requests under the Colorado Open Records Act to the City of Brighton, the first on March 6, asking for all email correspondence between the city council and Sura. The city responded less than a week later and said, “There has not been any email correspondence between Matt Sura and members of the Brighton City Council.”
A second open records request from the Observer sent March 18 asked for a copy of the contract and all contract negotiations between Sura and council members or the city attorney. Additionally, the second request asked for all emails, phone records and meeting records of any advice Sura has given council or city attorney. That request is still pending.
The oil and energy boom in Colorado has produced thousands of jobs as well as millions of dollars in new revenue for the state.
Severance tax revenues have surged because of advances in hydraulic fracturing. The state collected $138 million in taxes from 2012 through 2013, and are projected to collect $275 million in 2016.
“The council’s decision to enact a moratorium will do nothing but hurt and divide our strong community,” Priola said in his letter.
“I urge you to reconsider this ban. I also strongly urge you to sever ties with Mr. Sura given his stark conflict of interest. There are other avenues in which we can work together to review and revise regulations,” Priola said.
Sura and the team were scheduled to deliver the first ordinance draft on March 17 for Brighton city staff to review.
According to a review of the city’s four-month schedule, nearly a dozen reviews, revisions, and presentations will be held before the regulations are considered by the city council at a public hearing July 1, and the final ordinance is adopted on July 15.