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Natural Gas Junkies & Cowboy Junkies

Will Colorado's Oil and Gas Commission coddle an industry, or protect our air, water and wildlife for when the boom goes bust?

On Monday, I waited for two hours to put in my two cents before the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. I spoke in support of their efforts to adopt modest proposals to protect air, water, wildlife, and communities from the coming 22,000+ oil wells slated to be drilled here in the coming two decades.

In line just ahead of me, a young man told a compelling story. He grew up in Trinidad, Colorado, a small town a dozen miles north of the New Mexico border. When coal mines in the area went bust, he said, life in Trinidad got hard. A natural gas boom in the last decade had breathed new life into the area, and gave him a good paying job. He worried that the Commission's proposed rules would drive the gas industry out and turn Trinidad into a "ghost town."

Turning Trinidad into a ghost town is no one's favored outcome. But this man's story is not the whole story for several reasons.

First, the most popular page of the petroleum industy's playbook is to threaten to pick up and leave town when anyone proposes to regulate them or charge them more to do business. See my blog entry for February 12. And it's largely a hollow threat.

Second, the regulations the Oil and Gas Commission has proposed are thoughtful, modest, and necessary. They are also unlikely to drive anyone out of business. They include:  protecting drinking water supplies by requiring 500 foot setbacks for drilling near lakes and streams; notifying neighboring landowners before drilling wells on adjacent property; disclosing hazardous chemicals produced or used on site; and protecting critical wildlife habitat during the winter when dwindling food supplies and harsh conditions put animals like deer and elk at risk. 

An industry that can drill thousands of feet down in the Arctic Ocean, and carve an 800-mile-long pipeline through the Alaska wilderness -- and is enjoying record profits today -- can surely talk to the neighbors and move a rig a few hundred feet to protect drinking water.

Third, something about the speaker's "ghost town" remark stuck in my mind. Then I remembered how he opened his story. Trinidad went bust when the coal mines closed. And they closed, no doubt, because the recoverable coal was gone... just like the natural gas companies will leave when the gas in the ground is gone.

The Cowboy Junkies song about a dying western town, "The Last Spike," has something to say on this topic:

     I've watched the flat cars take away our timber.
     I've watched the coal cars steal our rock.
     And now that we've got nothing left to take we're told
     that the wheels will stop turning, the whistles will stop blowing,
     these foolish dreams must stop.

Someday, with coal already gone, and natural gas pumped out, Trinidad may have nothing left to take as well. 

The cure for Trinidad's boom-bust economy -- as it is for the rest of America's "energy colony" here in the West -- is not draining all the natural gas as quickly as possible, whatever the costs to communities and wildlife. It's to find a way to have a diversified economy -- one not based so completely on depletable resources that when the resources are depleted the town is depleted too.

Much of western Colorado got the message after the last oil bust in the 1980s, working hard to build an economy based in part on recreation and quality of life that relies on pure water, unspoiled vistas, and thriving wildlife populations. These are the very resources that the Oil and Gas Commission is wisely trying to protect before the tidal wave of wells engulfs the State.

If Trinidad -- and the rest of Colorado -- wants a stable economy for the long haul, it needs to avoid being just a natural gas junkie. Otherwise, the hangover when the gas is gone will be a doozie.


Note: While the deadline for official comments on the rule expired on June 23, you can still email the commission with your thoughts at For talking points on abut the regulations, see the websites of the Colorado Environment Coalition or Western Colorado Congress.

Tags:  Air, Water