‘Fractivists’ target chief oil & gas regulator

Hickenlooper’s appointee under fire
The Colorado Statesman

Environmentalists are targeting Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and his chief oil and gas regulator after the administration joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn Longmont’s voter-approved ban on hydraulic fracturing.

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore is taking the brunt of the criticism after commenting at a meeting in Loveland on July 16 that anti-fracking activists are wealthy enough to ignore the cost concerns associated with prohibiting the controversial drilling process.

Fracking employs the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase extraction rates. As the process has entered the heavily populated Front Range, concerns have grown over water contamination, noise, congestion, air pollution and a depletion of water resources.

Matt Lepore

Lepore said anti-fracking protesters “storm city hall” with demands to protect their health, safety and welfare, while “armed with misinformation,” according to a report by Fort Collins’ daily newspaper The Coloradoan. He spoke at the Northern Colorado Energy Summit.

Lepore then stunned observers when he pointed to his perception of demographics within the anti-fracking community, suggesting that the activists are affluent enough to ignore concerns associated with rising energy prices, according to the newspaper. Lepore added that without hydraulic fracturing, ratepayers would see costs skyrocket.

“A ban on fracking is really a ban on drilling,” declared Lepore. “A ban on fracking means an increase in coal use to generate electricity. It means an increase in local costs of electricity.”

A coalition of community activists and environmentalists on Thursday called for Lepore’s resignation, suggesting failed leadership. The coalition is organized by consumer advocacy group Food and Water Watch.

“Mr. Lepore launched a disparaging attack on hard-working Coloradans last week — insulting the thousands of parents, business owners, ranchers, teachers, workers and retirees who oppose putting dangerous fracking wells next to their homes,” said Sam Schabacker, regional director for Food and Water Watch.

Schabacker pointed to Lepore’s background as a former attorney for the oil and gas industry, suggesting that the administration is a bit too cozy with the industry it regulates. Hickenlooper has received similar attacks for supporting fracking, with environmentalists pointing to the governor’s background as a former geologist.

Before Hickenlooper appointed Lepore to direct the COGCC last year, he spent two years as the attorney for the commission. Directly before his appointment, Lepore was an attorney for Denver-based Beatty & Wozniak, where he focused on energy and natural resources law, representing clients before the COGCC.

“This is a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house, and it has come about because of Gov. Hickenlooper’s cozy relationship with the oil and gas industry,” implored Schabacker. “This is unacceptable. Gov. Hickenlooper must call immediately for Mr. Lepore to resign.”

Rod Bruske, a well-known fractivist from Longmont who helped to pass the ban on fracking last year, indicated that the administration is out of step with the will of the people. Longmont voters passed the ban last November by nearly 60 percent.

“I challenge Gov. Hickenlooper to replace Mr. Lepore with someone who will actually serve Coloradans — not the elitist oil and gas industry — so that my family can pursue the American Dream,” exclaimed Bruske.

Fractivists have tussled with the COGCC over the past year. They had fought for a universal 1,000-foot setback of wells, and tough water quality testing that included the heavily drilled Greater Wattenberg Area. What they ended up with was a 500-foot setback standard and an exemption for Wattenberg, which runs from Northglenn to Eaton.

Companies drilling in Wattenberg do not have to take new groundwater samples before drilling if the water has been tested within five years. Water quality testing both before and after a well is drilled is required elsewhere.

The coalition has written a letter to Hickenlooper, suggesting the Lepore’s “insulting comments encapsulate the failure of Mr. Lepore’s leadership.”

“How can ordinary Coloradans expect Mr. Lepore to protect them in keeping with the COGCC’s mandate to protect public health, safety and welfare when he insults them at an industry-sponsored conference?” the coalition asks the governor in their letter. “The answer is simple: they can’t.”

Hickenlooper’s office referred request for comment to the Department of Natural Resources. Lepore responded, backtracking on his comment.

“It was an ill-conceived statement that resulted from viewing the issue through too narrow a lens and talking out of turn,” acknowledged Lepore. “Of course citizen concerns span all income groups.

“We understand and take very seriously public concerns about oil and gas development and have worked aggressively to address those through a series of rulemakings over the past 18 months that make Colorado a national leader in our regulation of energy production,” he continued.

“We know there’s more work to do,” Lepore added. “Our rules continue to evolve, we’re funding new studies to better understand possible impacts, we’re adding boots on the ground, we’re strengthening our relationships with local governments and we are paying close attention to people from all walks of life. I want to know their concerns and together we want to take the steps necessary to make sure energy development is conducted safely and with respect for all Coloradans.”

Lawsuits against Longmont

Still, environmentalists are concerned that the state is now involved in two separate lawsuits against Longmont. The first lawsuit was filed by the state after the Longmont City Council last year passed strict oil and gas rules and regulations that overstep the COGCC’s rulemaking.

The second lawsuit was filed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in an effort to overturn the ban passed by Longmont voters. In a motion filed in Boulder County District Court by COGA on March 27, the oil and gas trade organization requested that the COGCC join the lawsuit.

On April 26, state attorneys for the COGCC responded, requesting that the court order joining the commission as a plaintiff in the suit “so that it is afforded the opportunity to be heard.” On the same day, state attorneys asked the court to issue a declaratory order invalidating Longmont’s ban on fracking.

The court on July 1 granted the motion for the COGCC to join the lawsuit. The merits of the two cases still remain before the court.

Environmentalists point out that when COGA filed its lawsuit to overturn Longmont’s ban in December 2012, Hickenlooper said the state would support the suit, but not become involved. But Lepore defended his commission’s actions, pointing out that it was simply responding to a request.

“The COGCC did not initiate this lawsuit, or this process,” explained Lepore. “The state’s joinder into this lawsuit was the result of a legal step initiated by COGA, which asked the court to bring COGCC into its case as a party.

“That said, the COGCC does believe Longmont’s ban on hydraulic fracturing is contrary to state law, and we believe clarity from the courts on this matter is important for all parties,” Lepore continued.

But environmentalists believe Hickenlooper and his administration have violated an earlier promise to not get involved, despite the motion filed by COGA.

“Gov. Hickenlooper has now in effect sued the citizens of Longmont twice: first to stop commonsense public safety regulations that were put in place by their City Council, and this most recent suit to overturn a democratic vote undertaken by the citizens to ban fracking last year,” said Schabacker.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com