GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Two conservation groups have accused an oil and gas lobbying group of "bullying" tactics to prevent ordinary citizens from testifying before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Western Colorado Congress and Conservation Colorado have asked Gov. John Hickenlooper to intervene and make sure the citizens get to have their say.
The Oil and Gas Commission, which oversees gas and oil drilling in Colorado, will hold hearings Jan. 7-9 about proposed new rules concerning gas drilling setbacks from homes, and groundwater monitoring near gas wells.
As part of the hearing process, several Garfield County residents were to testify before the commission about health problems and other issues they blame on nearby gas drilling rigs.
They include Dee Hoffmeister of Silt, Dave Devanney of Battlement Mesa, Thomas Thompson of Porcupine Creek (eight miles southwest of Rifle), former Garfield County Commissioner Tresi Houpt of Glenwood Springs, former Garfield County oil and gas liaison Judy Jordan of New Castle, and Theo Colburn of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia.
But the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the Colorado Petroleum Association (CPA), both based in Denver, on Thursday filed two motions to prevent that testimony.
"We should all agree that these kind of proceedings must follow applicable legal standards regarding the admissibility of evidence and procedural safeguards to ensure a fair hearing," said Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for COGA.
"But to say that the citizens voices have not been heard or are being denied is patently false," Flanders continued. "The commission has and continues to provide opportunities at each hearing for public comments."
But Conservation Colorado attorney Mike Chiropolos said public comment periods are "an opportunity for the general public to appear and be ignored," because the commission gives little weight to remarks made in that portion of the hearings.
The motions are based on industry lawyers' interpretations of the rules governing the commission hearing process and the Colorado Rules of Evidence, which normally apply only to the state's courts. COGA maintains they apply to the commission's hearing process, too.
The industry's motions also seek to prevent claims of drilling-related injuries and illness, as well as items introduced at a Nov. 14 commission hearing on the rules changes.
Among the reasons given in the industry trade groups' motions are that none of those testifying are medical doctors, and their testimony is not supported by scientific research.
One motion calls Jordan's testimony "abusive and harassing," because she maintains she was fired by the Garfield County commissioners in 2011 because she was guilty of "failing to promote the industry to its satisfaction."
"It is the height of irony that the oil and gas industry is calling citizens who have had their lives turned upside down by drilling as somehow 'harassing and abusive' merely because they want to tell the commission what has happened to them," said attorney Matt Sura, representing three Western Slope community organizations.
"Their testimony is their personal experience," added Chris Arend of Conservation Colorado. "The health impacts they have felt, the nausea, the burning eyes, the coughing, the loss of property values."
The conservation groups, Arend said, have appealed to Hickenlooper to override the industry motions.
"We call on Gov. Hickenlooper and the COGCC to deny these shocking motions and allow these Colorado citizens to tell their stories," stated Sura in a written statement.
Arend said it is likely the commission board will rule on the motions when the hearings open on Monday.
Chiropolos said on Friday that he expects the commission to deny the industry's motions.