Members of conservation groups say the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission illegally kept the public and media out of tours of oil and gas sites and one group says it will seek an injunction if it happens again.
The commission, which regulates oil and gas, held public meetings on the West Slope on Tuesday through Thursday and took what the agenda referred to as educational field tours of well sites in Gunnison, Garfield and Jackson counties.
Members of community and conservation groups objected when the agenda initially didn’t identify the sites and then the commission didn’t allow the public or media to join.
Leslie Robinson, chairwoman of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said she considered the tours as part of the public meetings because there was a quorum of the commission, which announced the tours as part of its public notice. Therefore, Robinson said, not allowing members of the public to go on the tours violated the state’s open meetings law.
“For a public meeting, the public was not invited,” Robinson said.
The Grand Valley Citizens Alliance asked Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment lawyer, to send a response to Lauren Mercer, n assistant attorney general who said the tours weren’t subject to the open meetings law.
Zansberg, who frequently represents The Denver Post and is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, said the commission convened the meeting and gave public notice.
“They said it was a public meeting for the purpose of notice but not for the purpose of public attendance. There is no such animal,” Zansberg said.
In a letter sent Friday to Mercer, Zansberg said the tours should have been open to the public and that the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance “is prepared to seek an injunction prohibiting further violations” of the open meetings law.
The Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, Citizens for a Healthy Community, the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans and the Valley Organic Growers Association asked the COGCC in October to release the locations of the sites the members planned to visit. The groups said the commissioners’ agenda showed they planned to spend more time speaking privately with industry representatives than the public while in Gunnison, Garfield and Jackson counties.
“This also became painfully obvious when the Commission rejected several requests to include a tour of offsite impacts with the community in the North Fork Valley portion of the schedule,” the groups said in a letter.
Mercer of the attorney general’s office responded in a Nov. 1 letter that the site visits “have important educational value” for the commissioners and are crucial to their understanding of the processes they regulate.
Mercer added that in 2004, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in a dispute over a meeting of the Costilla County commissioners with other officials that educational sessions not held for policy-making purposes aren’t subject to the open meetings law. She added the sites visited by the COGCC weren’t “subject to any pending or reasonably foreseeable Commission decision.”
However, Zansberg, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Costilla County case, said the two situations “are apples and oranges.”
“In this case, the meeting was convened by the commission and publicly noticed precisely because they were discussing public business,” Zansberg said.
Allyn Harvey, a Garfield County resident and consultant who works with conservation groups, said if the companies didn’t want members of the public on their private property, COGCC staff members could have toured the sites and made the information publicly available.
“I think the public misses out on hearing what essentially is testimony by the industry as to what their needs are for natural gas development in Garfield County,” Harvey said. “It’s hard to imagine that in 90 minutes to three hours, however long the tours were, that there wouldn’t be relevant information for the public conversation and policy making.”