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View Ted Zukoski's blog posts
26 June 2008, 10:18 AM

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.

Well, said Pam, my family has lived in this valley for 5 generations, and I have seen the bust of the coal mines, which by the way are going to reopen because the price has gone up. Trinidad is the home of the cleanest burning coal in the world but it does not have the large seams as Wyoming. Trinidad coal was blended to make the other coal cleaner burning and more friendly to the envro. I am the president of the chamber here we are for renewable energy, we are working to bringing in more businesses to our county, so that we dont have to count on one industry. Coal bed methane is the cleanest burning fossil fuel there is and it is our answer, and a stepping stone to renewable. I have gas wells on my property with no royalties, but I can tell you that Pioneer has improved our property greatly and now because of the water and grass we have more wildlife than you can imagine. I would invite you to come south and see how we live down here, as always you people from up north dont know we exist. If you did you would never say that Trinidad ran out of coal, there have been coal mines here for over 100 years and enough coal in the United States for 500 years. I invite you to come down as I have the COGCC and tour our valley but as they, you probably dont have the time or desire. If you choose to I am easy to find I am in the phone book. Looking forward to showing you our Victorian jewel of a city and a beautful valley I am proud to call home.

let's see some litigation on oil & gas -

OK--first things first, where the heck do you come from? Seriously. Where do you live? Are you FROM Trinidad? DO YOU LIVE in Trinidad? If not, you have no business making these comments. I am from Trinidad, born and raised here after my grandparents came north from New Mexico and west from Ellis Island to work in the coal mines. The coal mines didn't close because there is no coal. There are still tons and tons and tons of coal here in Trinidad. The mines closed because the market for the kind of coal that exists here dried up. Trinidad produces clean burning coal, which is more expensive than other forms of coal. The market found it could get cheaper, dirtier coal and stopped buying the coal in Trinidad. That's why the mines closed. Take a ride down here, turn right, head west and you will see coal veins on the side of road. You will see stacks of coal just left. The coal didn't end and neither will the natural gas. Natural gas is a byproduct of decomposition. Decomposition is a constant process. As long as there is gravity and oxygen, decomposition will take place and natural gas will be produced. The gas will NEVER be gone. The COGCC rules DO NOT provide balance. It provides pander, pander to a liberal, knee jerk bunch of treehuggers. I can say that. My diploma is from CU-Boulder. If the gas industry goes away in Trinidad, where will 2000 people work? I know this well--my husband is a displaced coal miner and a supervisor for Pioneer Natural Resources. He is providing a good living for my daughter and I and he has professional opportunties he would not have otherwise as a coal miner who "went underground" at age 19. His company is responsible to the environment and community that surrounds it. You have no right to pass judgment on our community when you have no tie to it. You have no idea what we went through when the mines closed. You have no idea that the coal is Trinidad is so recoverable that you can still walk 5 feet into the portal of the mine and pick up coal. You would think that if the gas is going to be gone, we should make hay while the sun shines. Here's one for you--what about the farmers and rachers who will lose their farms when the water produced by the oil and gas industry stops providing water that is the lifeblood of their farms and ranches? What happens to my daughter when there's not food on her table? I read a post about how Colorado's water belongs to all of us. I agree-but if the oil and gas industry pulls out, I won't be able to drink that water because I will be a resident of Texas where my husband, another Trinidad native, will go to work. I feel sorry for you. At least we see reality and are fighting to have our voices heard. You refuse to see the reality that communities depend upon this industry and so do families. You just don't have a clue, do you?

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