A Durango attorney has been tapped to lead the state’s top agency that regulates oil and gas at a time of sweeping change for the industry in Colorado.
Earlier this year, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 181, a bill that shifts the focus of Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from fostering energy development to instead prioritizing the protection of public health, safety and the environment.
The bill was signed by Gov. Jared Polis on April 16. Polis selected Jeff Robbins to guide the COGCC through the change.
Robbins moved to Durango in 1996, taking a job with a law firm in town that worked as outside counsel for La Plata County government. Immediately, he was put into the throes of a community battling against rampant oil and gas development.
“All of that work provided me with some perspective on local authority over oil and gas,” Robbins said. “La Plata County was one of the first communities to do that.”
The energy industry set its sights on the San Juan Basin’s rich deposits of natural gas in La Plata County in the mid-1980s and, subsequently, put intense development pressures on the county and its residents, said Gwen Lachelt, a La Plata County commissioner who has worked on oil and gas issues for years.
Lachelt said that, at the time, the oil and gas industry had no substantive oversight. As a result, vast parts of the county became industrialized with oil and gas infrastructure.
In extreme circumstances, houses blew up, neighborhoods were abandoned because of methane seepage and some residents’ water wells became contaminated, she said.
“We’re talking just total industry domination of La Plata County,” Lachelt said. “And landowners had no rights.”
Josh Joswick was elected a La Plata County commissioner in 1993, at a time when residents started to fight back against the rampant development, he said.
“People started to complain about the arrogance of the industry,” he said. “They (industry) were used to doing what they wanted to do and telling people to just get out of the way. But people here didn’t buy that.”
La Plata County drafted its own set of localized regulations for oil and gas development in the early 1990s, the first county in the state to do so. The move was challenged in various courts, going all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled in the county’s favor.
“A lot of damage had been done already, but hopefully, we were able to stave off other damage that might have been done,” Joswick said.
Today, there are more than 3,400 wells in La Plata County.
Both Lachelt and Joswick said Robbins was instrumental in securing local oil and gas regulations.
“He earned a real reputation for advocating for local government,” Lachelt said.
Joswick said Robbins’ experience in La Plata County should prepare him for the issues on the Front Range, where local communities are battling the same fight the county fought years ago. Although it should be noted, Robbins has worked on oil and gas issues on the Front Range for years, even starting his own practice. He also worked as a private attorney for Polis for about five years on oil and gas issues.
Now, Robbins is tasked with drafting the new rules to reflect SB 181 over the next year. He said he believes a balance can be struck between protecting residents and not hampering economic development.
“I don’t think 181 will have a negative impact on development,” he said. “We didn’t see any negative repercussions from regulations in La Plata County. The industry did quite well for a long time.”
Oil and gas in La Plata County started to decline around 2010, as natural gas prices dropped globally and it became cheaper to drill elsewhere in the country.
Robbins, who tries to make it back to Durango where his wife and child live as much as possible, said SB 181 will likely not have any discernible impact in La Plata County, where rules have existed for decades.
But he said it is a major turning point for oil and gas development in the state. And he is proud to be apart of it.
“It’s an exciting time to be involved in the regulation of oil and gas in the state,” he said. “And it’s a tremendous opportunity for the governor to think I’m the right person to lead this effort.”