For the first few years, Eric Ewing described his family’s two acre plot on the rural northern Colorado plains as heaven on earth. During a recent visit, however, the Ewing household was surrounded by the unmistakable signs of oil and gas production.
“It feels like I live in a factory now,” Ewing said.
There’s a large new gas processing facility a half-mile to the south, and clusters of wells and tanks within a few thousand feet to the west and north. This past summer, a well was drilled 650 feet from his home, just outside the state-mandated setback of 500 feet.
Ewing’s concerns about issues such as noise, air pollution and quality of life impacts are exactly what an oil and gas task force was formed late last summer to try to appease. The group was created by Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s office as part of a deal to avoid a handful of competing oil and gas ballot measures. But, time is running out for the group, which met Monday and Tuesday this week, to submit policy recommendations to the governor and state legislature.
“We’ve been given a very difficult task to accomplish in five months,” said Gwen Lachelt, task force Co-Chair and La Plata County Commissioner.
The 21-members, split between government leaders, industry representatives and citizens, have been meeting since last September to find ways to address the complaints of those who don’t want drilling next to homes and schools, while protecting constitutional mineral rights and trying not to hinder the oil and gas production that is a major economic driver for the state.
The multi-day meetings so far have largely been information gathering. But the sessions this week were critical to meeting a Feb. 27 deadline for sending recommendations to the governor. A two-thirds majority of the task force is needed for the group to formally suggest policy changes to state lawmakers or the governor.
So far, Lachelt sees two broad areas of agreement: Large oil and gas facilities should be located further from homes and communities and more staff are needed at state regulatory agencies.
But, will these discussions result in anything more than suggestions. Could real legislative action come out of the meetings? At this point, Lachelt is skeptical.
“I’m hoping I’ll be surprised,” she said, “but given how political these issues are and let’s face it, the drop in oil prices will likely have an impact on the industry members of our task force.”
This week, task force members whittled their list of suggested policy changes from 56 down to about 40. These range from hiring more staff at oil and gas regulatory agencies to requiring greater disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process.
But, task force member Jon Goldin-Dubois said he worried the industry members of the group will not come to substantive compromise on the biggest conflict, giving local governments more control over where drilling can take place.
“If we don’t address that, we will have failed,” Goldin-Dubois said.
Falling oil prices are likely to make the industry participants less willing to support expensive compromises. The representatives of the task force from oil and gas companies declined to go on tape for this story. But, in an email response, Brad Holly, task force member and Anadarko Petroleum vice president of operations in the Rocky Mountain region, said:
“Unnecessary and unproductive regulatory burdens on any industry are very costly, and can make it challenging to continuing invest capital in technology and infrastructure, particularly in a lower-commodity price environment. Regardless of commodity prices, Anadarko is going to continue to listen to concerns and collaborate with stakeholders to find reasonable and constructive solutions.”
Another task force member, former Colorado Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, feels more hopeful.
“The industry, I think, wants to be good neighbors,” he said, “and they really want to find a way to work with local communities.”
Despite the impacts on his personal life, Eric Ewing does not consider himself against the oil and gas industry broadly.
“Yeah, I mean, we have family that drill,” Ewing said. “We need energy.”
Yet, living in Weld County, where oil and gas is so often viewed as a major boost to the economy, Ewing said his family is looking at the possibility of relocating.