DENVER A week of hearings on proposed changes to Colorado's oil and gas regulations got off to a lively start Monday with opponents warning of economic damage if the rules are adopted and supporters predicting environmental and health peril if they are not.
At least 400 people attended a session devoted to public comments on the rules, designed to implement new laws requiring the state to pay more attention to energy development's impacts on health, wildlife and environment.
The changes are being considered amid a natural gas boom that has set record drilling rates.
Trade groups contend the proposed rules exceed what the Legislature intended when it passed the laws last year. An ad campaign launched last week by the industry assailed the rules as a "looming threat to Colorado's economy," a warning voiced by several speakers at the hearing.
"This rule does affect my livelihood," said Wesley Medina, who lives in Las Animas County in southern Colorado and works for the industry.
Las Animas County businessman Ernest Moltrer, who also works in the oil and industry said he might have to move his business to other gas-producing states if Colorado clamps down too hard. He asked the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to consider the economic impacts before it votes on the rules in August.
"I don't want to be become a resident of Texas," Moltrer said. "I don't want to become a resident of anywhere else but Colorado."
Oil and gas workers wearing yellow stickers that read "Please don't rule us out" clapped after several opponents spoke.
Supporters of updating regulations, some wearing orange stickers saying "Support wildlife," said they don't want to have to leave Colorado either or risk losing what makes the state a special place to live.
"We need common-sense protections to make sure we protect what we all love about Colorado," said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton.
Solano said she would like to see some of the proposals strengthened, including ones overseeing drilling in watersheds and the location of drilling rigs near homes.
Josh Joswick, a former La Plata County commissioner, said the proposed regulations are needed to ensure balance.
"These are long overdue. They don't go as far as I'd like them to," said Joswick, a member of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a conservation group.
The state issued a record 6,368 drilling permits last year, six times the 1999 number. State officials say more could be approved this year.
Some of the people speaking against the rules said the U.S. needs more domestic energy production in the face of rising gasoline prices. Most of the drilling permits issued in Colorado are for natural gas, which is used largely for heating, rather than vehicle fuel.
The industry argues that the proposed rules, if enacted, could lessen companies' interest in the state.
Keith Hay, speaking in favor of the rules, said energy companies are making record profits.
"They're very unlikely to leave where the resource is," Hay said.
Advocates of stronger regulations fear that changes recommended last week by state staffers would dilute protections in the proposed rules for wildlife, people living near oil and gas wells, and air and water quality.
One of the recommended changes would give companies until 2010 to comply with rules on minimizing the impacts on certain wildlife and habitat if the companies consult with wildlife officials on individual wells or submit comprehensive development plans. The original proposed compliance date was Nov. 1.
Companies that don't negotiate with wildlife officials or come up with development plans face restrictions of up to 90 days on when they can drill to protect wildlife during mating and birthing seasons. Industry officials have complained that wildlife protections will result in a 90-day drilling moratorium each year, putting tens of thousands of people out of work.
Dave Neslin, acting director of the state oil and gas commission, said the drilling restrictions are a last resort to be imposed only if companies aren't willing to work with wildlife officials.
State wildlife officials, industry representatives and environmentalists were scheduled to testify today.