Officials get on offensive for oil, gas debate

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GRAND JUNCTION -- Driving through Garfield County, motorists pass oil well after oil well.

For the past year, Garfield County's oil and gas auditor, Doug Dennison, has made a career out of working with the companies that own those wells. In 2003, Garfield County approved 566 permits to drill.

Garfield County has approved 141 so far this year, and Dennison projects 650 approvals by the end of December.

That much drilling has created problems ranging from environmental concerns to complaints about smells.

During an oil and gas forum at Club 20's spring meeting, Dennison explained how his county has met some of the challenges that come with natural resources development.

Only Weld County has more wells in Colorado than Garfield County. But Garfield has the highest growth rate, and many county governments working to exploit their own natural resources look at Garfield County as a model for how to proceed.

Moffat County ranks seventh in the state with oil wells, according to statistics compiled by Brain Macke, deputy director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission. As oil and gas activity continues to increase here, Moffat County's situation could become more like that of Garfield County.

"The industry is a source of concern for a lot of our citizens," Dennison said.

In 2003, he received 123 complaints related to oil and gas activity. Most of those complaints were about odors, while traffic and facility location also ranked high. But Dennison guessed closer to 200 complaints were actually made, if the numbers had included complaints placed with the sheriff's office and other county agencies.

Garfield County is the first Colorado county to hire an oil and gas auditor. Dennison acts as a liaison between oil and gas companies, county government and citizens. He said part of his role is filling the gap where industries aren't covered by state and federal laws. That mostly means overseeing road and land use issues.

Dennison said the county plans to start an odor assessment program to identify the sources of the odors citizens have complained of. The county government also wants to assemble a group to study the county's air quality.

But Ken Wonstolen, an attorney with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said it's common for those who live near energy production equipment to complain.

"We only see a vocal constituency that says 'No, not here.' If we don't get over that hurdle, we won't have broad energy development," Wonstolen said.

Even "green" energy producers fight this battle, he said.

The Kennedys, Walter Cronkite and others who live or vacation in Martha's Vineyard objected to plans to erect windmills outside that community, Wonstolen said. Phoenix residents refused to permit the installation of solar panels on residential roofs, because it created an unsightly glare.

Wonstolen discouraged counties from rejecting permits to drill because homeowners don't want wells in their backyards. Oil and gas companies will take the denials to court, where they will win their cases because they are supported by state regulations, he said.

He stressed that Americans need to get energy from somewhere and need to accept that every option won't be to everyone's liking.

Rob Gebhart can be reached at 824-7031 or rgebhart@craigdailypress.com.

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