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Controversy over Colorado oil and gas boom heats up

With Colorado issuing a record number of oil and gas drilling permits this year, an unusual coalition of environmentalists, ranchers and rural county commissioners is calling for better regulation of the state's energy boom.

"The state is unable to keep up with the record level of oil and gas permits," says Pete Kolbenschlag, a Delta County-based coordinator for the Colorado Environmental Coalition. The state has reported that it expects to issue a record-shattering 4,000 drilling permits this year, up from around 3,000 last year.

Unprecedented drilling both on private and federally managed land threatens Colorado's landscape, Kolbenschlag says, potentially choking mountain streams with sediment and killing chances for some federal lands to be set aside as wilderness.

County commissions in Pitkin, Delta, Montrose, Ouray, Routt, Grand and San Miguel counties have joined Kolbenschlag and environmental activists in demanding that the state's Water Quality Control Commission monitor erosion at drilling sites.

In doing so, those elected bodies have refused to conform to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's decision to delay until next year any storm water runoff regulations on drilling sites impacting between one and five acres.

Leading the fight against the coalition's efforts, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), an industry group, has sued the Water Quality Control Commission to overturn the proposed regulations. That suit has been put on hold, pending a Jan. 9 hearing.

"If there's so much drilling going on, why is the price at an all-time high?" asks Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president at COGA. "As an industry, we're scrambling right now to meet demand."

Noting the increased interest in energy development across the state, Colorado Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Theresa Sauer says that since 1987, the federal agency has leased drilling rights on more than 4 million acres statewide, netting more than $113 million.

This year, environmental activists say, the BLM has leased 27,250 acres of proposed wilderness.

Kolbenschlag says that rural stakeholders, including ranchers, are beginning to realize that unfettered energy development could destroy a way of life. "We're working with salt of the earth," he says. "Red-blooded people in a red state."

-- Dan Wilcock

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