Lawsuit would permit citizens to talk to COGCC
December 3, 2009
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A lawsuit seeking to make it possible for citizens to talk directly to the state’s oil and gas regulators is still awaiting its day in court after more than a year, said an attorney involved in the case.
All the paperwork from the two sides of the case is supposed to be filed by mid-January, 2010, after which the case is expected to be set for a hearing before the Colorado Court of Appeals, according to attorney Luke Danielson of Gunnison.
“The point of the whole thing is to say, if citizens are unhappy about what the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] is doing, they should be entitled to have a hearing … and express their concerns,” Danielson said.
He said that the case could be heard by mid-2010, with a decision perhaps coming a couple of months after that.
The suit was filed in Denver District Court in late 2008 by the Grand River Citizens Alliance, a grassroots organization in Garfield County that has been active in oil and gas drilling issues. A district judge threw the suit out in May 2009, and the case is now before the state appeals court.
Also listed as “appellants” are two area property owners and the Western Colorado Congress, which is an umbrella organization for grassroots groups.
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The suit targets state and federal policies concerning drilling for natural gas near the Rulison blast site, and the rules governing citizen input regarding those policies.
The U.S. Department of Energy in 1969 detonated a 43-kiloton nuclear bomb about 8,400 feet below the surface in an experiment to see if the blast would fracture the underground rock layers and free up deeply buried deposits of gas and oil.
The blast contaminated the oil and gas, however, and the site has been capped and largely out of the public eye until recently.
But recent improvements in drilling technology have prompted energy companies to seek permission to go after oil and gas reserves near the site, and government authorities have indicated a willingness to permit drilling activities to get incrementally closer to the blast location.
The idea has sparked considerable local opposition by citizens worried about radioactive contamination of the area’s surface and ground water supplies, among other issues. Some of these citizens tried in 2008 to make their concerns known to the COGCC, but were told they had no standing to even request a hearing, according to the lawsuit.
“They have adopted a bunch of rules that insulate the process from ordinary citizens,” Danielson charged, noting that COGCC regulations bar citizens from petitioning the commission directly.
Instead, Danielson said, citizens must enlist the support and cooperation of the local board of county commissioners, which might be reluctant to get involved due to the expense and effort of the process.
“It is pretty expensive,” Danielson explained, noting that the cost of such a hearing involving the Rulison site “might be up in the six figures” thanks to the cost of doing research into complex scientific data and hiring expert witnesses to testify about the data.
The suit, he said, would make it possible for individual citizens to appear before the oil and gas commission and state their case, just as local governments and energy companies are allowed to do under the commission’s rules.
He said several counties have filed “amicus briefs” in support of the GVCA position, including Gunnison, Saguache, La Plata and Pitkin. Several regional citizens groups also have filed briefs in the case.
Garfield County has not filed a brief, according to Assistant County Attorney Debbie Quinn, because the relevant supporting paperwork was not sent to her office until after the deadline for such briefs.
The COGCC was slated to discuss the case behind closed doors at a meeting on Nov. 30, according to an agenda posted on its website.
COGCC Executive Director Dave Neslin could not be reached for comment.