Industry takes the first seats
In discussing a moratorium that could limit new natural gas-related activity in the county, the Gunnison Board of County Commissioners saw a show of force from the industry responsible for the development in the North Fork Valley at a meeting on Tuesday, August 16.
The rare appearance by such a large number of people who work in the industry brought out landowners, business owners, engineers and executives who aired frustrations about what they see as an attempt to stifle an industry that, for them, is essential.
For Lance Rundle, owner of Hotchkiss-based Rundle Construction Inc., the meeting was an opportunity to show the commissioners and the county staff that any moratorium would have a tangible negative impact on the economy in the North Fork Valley and beyond at the most inopportune time. He said he wanted to “give the industry a face.”
At the same time, those who turned out to oppose the natural gas industry or encourage stricter regulation of it worked hard to be heard and repeat their concerns about the potential for harm by an industry operating in an otherwise intact environment. They too wanted to show that the industry could have an equally tangible impact on the economy in the North Fork, should something go wrong.
Kevin McGruther, president of the Crested Butte Farmers Market, spent the minutes before the meeting telling anyone from the industry who would listen they were “prostitutes” and “whores” who sold themselves for a profit. “Look it up,” he said of the phrases.
“Don’t make eye contact with him,” a woman in the audience said. “He’ll start talking to you.” The battle lines were being drawn.
Commission chairman Hap Channell tried to clarify the intent of the meeting, explaining that it wasn’t a public hearing and instead “was set up to have a discussion amongst ourselves, really.
“On the other hand, when there’s an agenda item it’s been a Gunnison County tradition to hear public comments,” he said. It was a welcome invitation to those who had traveled to the meeting from the North Fork.
But first the commissioners needed to meet in an executive session with county attorney David Baumgarten and county manager Matthew Birnie, along with counsel Barbara Green by phone, to discuss the options they had to stem the number of permits being issued under its oil and gas regulations while ongoing conversations develop with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).
The county entered that conversation with the intention of working out the wrinkles in the lines of communication between the state and the county and as a result delayed the adoption of an amended set of regulations proposed by the county Planning Commission.
And while the meeting wasn’t supposed to be a public hearing, it wasn’t just about the regulations being considered by the county and it wasn’t just about merits or dangers of the industry. It turned out to be about all of those things.
After a brief introduction from Eric Sanford, land manager for SG Interests I Ltd., which has a large and growing presence in the basin, the list of landowners stood to tell the commissioners how the gas industry has helped them ride out the hard times and is giving many of them the opportunity to pass their family ranches on to the next generation.
“At the last meeting you were showed one perspective on this issue and the reason you have a room full today is to show you that there is another perspective related to this issue,” Sanford said. “We wanted to show you a little bit of balance today and that there are people who support this project. We wanted to show you that there are people who are directly affected by a moratorium, or if you make it impossible to permit in this county.”
Kevin Swisher, operations superintendent for Gunnison Energy Corporation (GEC) in Delta, told the commissioners that his office supports 15 full-time employees in the summer and a half-dozen interns from Western State College.
GEC president Brad Robinson says the 50 people the company directly employs full-time can be multiplied four-fold to get an idea for its true potential for employment.
David Ludlom, executive director of the trade group Western Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told the commissioners his group was opposed to any kind of moratorium because “it would be a detriment to the operators here in Gunnison County,” explaining that some operators need to get service contracts signed up to a year in advance.
Robinson had a similar concern, saying his company only anticipated drilling two wells next year. Losing a drill rig contract because of a moratorium could set his schedule back, which isn’t productive in a short drilling season.
Dixie Jacobs-Luke and her brother Jake attended alongside Joe Sperry, Gary Volk, David Clinger and a handful of other landowners who have leased surface use of their property to gas companies developing the gas underneath, echoed a similar refrain separately.
“Like many of the ranching families in the Ragged Mountain community, we are fourth generation ranchers,” Jacobs-Luke said, telling the commissioner she and her neighbors had recently watched a fifth generation of rancher show their livestock at the Delta County fair.
“These kids, and their livestock, depend on us to be stewards of the land, so they can continue our tradition,” she said. As Jacobs-Luke went on, she told a story about how the livestock from the community’s ranches are sought after for their nutritional value and upbringing.
Then Alma Roberts stood to speak and if he hadn’t identified himself as an organic farmer from the North Fork Valley, you’d have thought he was from a ranching family. He used some of the same language the ranchers used to describe his connection to the land.
But his concerns were about the industry, not for it, and he encouraged the commissioners to slow the encroachment of industry. “I understand those of you who are here in support of this are in support of this development because you need the revenue to feed their families and pay their mortgages and live. That’s important. At the same time, I appreciate clean water to drink and grow my crops with and clean air to breathe.”
When asked at the next break about the concerns about the potential impacts to ground water, Rundle says, “We drink out of the same well as everybody else. Why would we want to mess with the water? We live over there. People think we are over there to rape and pillage and that’s just not the case.”
And then there was the hard line from Robbie Guinn, vice president of SG Interests, which is currently suing the county over its claim to regulatory authority of the gas industry. Guinn told the commissioners flatly, “We think it would be an abuse for the county to refuse to process any oil and gas permit applications. We think the pending ordinance doctrine would at a minimum allow you to apply the pending ordinances to any new applications. But any type of moratorium would be an abuse of your jurisdiction.”
The pending ordinance doctrine is one alternative the commissioners alluded to in their agenda listing and could allow the commissioners to delay permit applications that would be affected by a proposed rule change. But the commissioners haven’t committed to taking that, or any, approach.
Trying to draw attention to a middle ground that both sides of the gas debate could occupy, High Country Citizens’ Alliance (HCCA) executive director Dan Morse told the commissioners and the crowd, “We are all on the same side, which is trying to find a way to balance our economy and our environment. We want to make sure we have a job and stay healthy.”
He explained that gas development is just one industry in the county’s economy, sharing space with coal, tourism, agriculture and ranching. “All of these are very important to our economy and all of these are subject to common sense regulations, so we move together on the best path forward.
“To take that year of thoughtful deliberation and say we can’t apply those new regulations would be a disservice to all the hard work that has gone into them,” he continued. Morse went on to say HCCA was asking for a moratorium on “accepting new applications only, and that’s an important nuance.”
His suggestion wouldn’t try to stop work on the ground, but would let the county and the state figure out “who can regulate what,” and the “year-long process can still be honored and … we can go ahead and sensibly regulate all industries in the county.” He didn’t want the county to have to review “applications it isn’t ready for. Then when the time is right we can go ahead and start processing new applications under new regulations that were thought out by a group of people here in this county, and do it right.”
Others in the audience returned to their concerns about the industry and the practices it employs to develop the gas. Michael Ward, a 32-year veteran of the Forest Service turned private contractor, wanted people to know gas development has been going on in the North Fork Valley since the 1950s with a few failures and a lot of success. He gave kudos to the operators for their work.
But former planning commissioner Richard Karas just wanted the commissioners to stay on task and consider the moratorium. ”I think it would be very helpful to know at some point, if not right now, what strategies are available to you, so that you can continue your effort of working with [COGCC] without being inundated, potentially with new applications,” he continued.
As the commissioners moved to continue the conversation until the middle of September when Channell said they “could get a more in-depth analysis from staff” on the pending ordinance doctrine and a host of other items related to the permitting process, Karas cringed at the thought of permit applications flooding into the community development department while all the various options for a moratorium are discussed in meetings.
“What’s going to stop them?” he said after the meeting.
Channell said Baumgarten could present his analysis sometime “between early September and late September… so keep your eye out for upcoming agendas.”