GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — Stretching from towering ski mountains in the east all the way to the Utah border and larger than both Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Garfield County is home to more than 10,000 active oil and gas wells and is the top natural gas-producing county in a state that’s sixth in the nation.
In Colorado, where political and legal battles have been raging for nearly a year over what government entities should regulate oil and gas drilling, perhaps no place has experienced more discord than Garfield County.
It’s controlled by a three-member board of county commissioners that over the years has drawn heated criticism from community activists, some politicians, environmentalists and everyday citizens who feel too much power is ceded to the oil and gas industry.
That debate came to a head earlier this year with the firing of longtime journalist who covered the industry and claims he was forced out by pressure from both the board of county commissioners and industry officials.
“[Oil and gas companies] complained about me, the Garfield County commissioners complained about me and [the Glenwood Springs Post Independent] took me off both those beats,” said John Colson, a hard-hitting reporter for various newspapers in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs since 1978. Ultimately, Colson said, the paper’s publisher fired him.
“I focused to a large degree when I first started covering oil and gas on the people that it was affecting, the people who lived near oil and gas facilities and were getting sick and dying in one case,” Colson said, adding he increasingly clashed with management over corporate influence at the paper.
The allegations by Colson come amid a growing debate about local government control of oil and gas drilling to curb potential health impacts. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently struck an 11th-hour deal to avert a costly political battle over two controversial ballot initiatives that would have increased county and municipal control over drilling.
(Photo of a drilling rig on a six-well pad in Colorado's Piceance Basin by Flickr user Tim Hurst via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)
Several Colorado cities last fall voted to impose hydraulic fracturing bans, prompting lawsuits from the industry and the state, which maintains ultimate regulatory authority. Judges have recently sided with state and industry, but public health concerns persist.
Trési Houpt, a former Garfield County commissioner whom incumbent commissioner Tom Jankovsky ousted in the 2010 general election, said there is a pattern of the current three-member board bending to the will of the oil and gas industry.
“John [Colson] did a tremendous job of bringing that investigative reporting back to the Post Independent,” Houpt said, “and it’s a huge loss for him to be gone. I’m not only disappointed in the Post Independent, I’m appalled that any type of media outlet would buckle to that type of pressure.”
Houpt, who also used to serve on the state’s chief regulatory board—the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)—contends that the state’s 64 counties already have a great deal of local control over drilling operations right up to the drill pad itself.
While split-estate laws provide subsurface mineral rights owners access to separately owned surface property for extraction purposes, Houpt contends Colorado counties and towns can use zoning laws to dictate how and where drilling can occur. But the current Garfield County board of commissioners instead relaxed land-use codes last summer, she said.
“They’ve taken the side of the oil and gas industry in all disputes, in all issues at the local and state level,” said Houpt, who claims she was targeted by oil and gas industry campaign spending in 2010. “The commissioners don’t research the concerns that people have about the impacts or the potential impacts that oil and gas can have on water, air and land.”
Jankovsky, who’s running for re-election in November, strongly disputes Houpt’s contention.
“If the industry was calling the shots, then they would be driving up through Glenwood Springs and Four Mile Road for one thing,” he said, referring to a proposed oil and gas haul route the county opposed near Sunlight Mountain Resort, a ski area Jankovsky manages.
“We don’t regulate oil and gas,” Jankovsky added “We let the [state] COGCC regulate oil and gas, but there are a couple of pipeline issues where the industry didn’t get their way … and transformer issues.” Still, Jankovsky is unabashed in his pro-business campaign platform.
“What I said last election is I wanted to grow this economy and create jobs, and I said one of the ways to do that is support business,” Jankovsky said. “That’s where I come out of; I’m a business person.”
As for Colson, Jankovsky said: “I think John is a great guy. I just think he editorialized instead of reporting. No, I did not call the paper and say, ‘You should get rid of this guy.’ I do know that there was [county] staff that talked to the paper, but [the commissioners] did not tell them to do that. It was more complaints about the quality of a piece.”
Post Independent publisher Michael Bennett did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment. Editor Randy Essex, hired after Colson’s departure, would only speak broadly about his plans for covering the industry.
“My strategy is to have fair, accurate coverage of everything that we cover,” Essex said. “So much in America is polarized. I’m not interested in further polarizing anything or vilifying people who are working to make a living at the jobs that are available to them.”
Judy Jordan, a former Garfield County oil and gas liaison who was fired after Jankovsky took office in 2011, said industry representatives had a direct pipeline to the county commissioners and often advised them on policy matters.
“My experience when I was at the board of county commissioners was that the industry wielded so much power, because they regularly called up the commissioners and told them what they wanted and what they should do, whereas regular citizens almost never do that,” Jordan said in a 2011 interview.
A respected environmental scientist with decades of experience regulating various industries, Jordan now works for the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in Washington, D.C.
“I'm very sorry to hear that John was let go,” Jordan said in a more recent email. “I thought he was a gifted reporter and I hope he will be able to move into another position that will make good use of his talents.”
Keith Lambert, a former mayor of the town of Rifle who ran for county commissioner in 2004 as the gas boom was really heating up, said he appreciated Colson’s work and was sad to see him go. Like Houpt, Lambert said industry campaign spending defeated him in the 2004 elections.
“Even then the industry was weighing in with dollars,” Lambert said. “They were signing up the transient [oil and gas] workforce to vote at that point in time and continued to do so in 2008 and beyond. They’re exerting their influence. They have a presence here and are letting it be known that they have a presence here.”
David O. Williams is a journalist based in Eagle, Colorado.