Governor’s Forum on Agriculture recap

Colorado Convention Center Solar Power System

From Colorado Politics (Marianne Goodland) via The Durango Herald:

Hickenlooper, speaking to an audience at the 27th annual Governor’s Forum on Agriculture this week, said that the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office met with representatives from recreation offices and outdoor recreation companies from eight states, and the result was something called the Colorado Accord. It’s a nonpartisan effort to work on issues related to clean air, water and public land – areas the trade association strongly supports and part of the reason the trade show moved to Colorado, he said.

This accord is the start of an opportunity for Colorado to be a national leader in outdoor recreation, Hickenlooper said. The companies involved are small – around 10 to 15 employees.

“They don’t want to live in the cities or their businesses to be in the cities,” he said. “These are companies that are naturals for smaller communities … . This is a chance to build a relationship between farms and ranches and outdoor recreation. If you want more jobs in your towns, there will never be a better chance.”

The governor also addressed the ongoing negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the importance of maintaining partnerships with Canada and Mexico, which are NAFTA partners. The renegotiation of the 22-year old agreement hasn’t gone as quickly as he would like, Hickenlooper said.

“Our relationships with Canada and Mexico need to remain strong,” given that more than half of Colorado agricultural exports go to those two countries, he said, adding that NAFTA has the potential to do so many good things for Colorado, and that he has talked with officials from both countries.

“They just want a deal,” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper said he recently spoke with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and their positions align on several issues, such as the need for better and faster negotiations with South Korea, China and India on agricultural trade; about volatility in the labor market for ag, and for a more balanced approach on agricultural regulations.

One of the state’s highest priorities for global exports, he said, is to open up Asia. “There’s an insatiable appetite for beef and pork” in South Korea, China and Japan, and the U.S. needs a fair deal with those countries.

Hickenlooper also made a push for a long-term funding solution for the Colorado water plan. Last month, the governor said he favored a change in how the state collects severance taxes on oil and gas, saying, among other things, that Colorado has the lowest severance taxes on oil and gas in the region.

A court case two years ago with oil giant BP dramatically reduced the amount of severance taxes the state can collect, which has been used in the past to mitigate oil and gas activities in rural communities and to pay for water projects around the state. The state had to take money out of its general fund to pay for the property tax deductions the court decided BP was owed. After that, the state’s share of severance taxes dropped from around $150 to $200 million per year in 2016 to about $25 million last year, Hickenlooper said.

Without a structural change in how severance taxes are levied, he warned, severance taxes could come to an end. “But let’s get a referred measure on the ballot” that will provide a fair tax structure for oil and gas, he said. “It’s a social contract with the state of Colorado. If it were presented properly,” voters would not walk away from it.

That didn’t fly with Senate President Pro tem Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, who was in the audience and is president of the board of the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program, which hosts the annual agriculture forum. Sonnenberg disputed the governor’s claim that Colorado has the lowest severance taxes in the region.

Sonnenberg told Colorado Politics that “we have robbed $400 million from severance taxes” to cover budget shortfalls, including $100 million to pay BP for the lawsuit. “We need to figure out how not to rob Peter to pay Paul,” Sonnenberg added. “If we truly want to do something about severance tax, maybe we add all energy: wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric.”

COGCC approves comprehensive new flowline regulations

Graphic credit: Anadarko

Here’s the release from Governor Hickenlooper’s office:

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) today approved comprehensive new regulations addressing oversight of flowlines and related infrastructure associated with oil and gas development.

The nine-member commission unanimously approved the updated regulations following three days of testimony from the public, local governments, homebuilders, citizen groups, trade associations and members of the oil and gas industry on more than 20 pages of proposed new and amended rules.

“We believe these new rules are another important step in the aftermath of the Firestone tragedy,” said Governor John Hickenlooper. “State government and local municipalities depend on the commitment that industry is doing everything to to keep our communities safe.”

The flowline rules take numerous steps to strengthen requirements for design, installation, maintenance, testing, tracking and abandoning flowlines. Flowlines describe the kinds of pipelines that most typically move fluids around specific oil and gas development locations from wells to separators to storage tanks or to larger pipelines.

The new rules include dozens of changes and improvements to flowline oversight, including:

Requirements for more detailed tracking, location data and record-keeping for flowlines that carry fluids away from a specific oil and gas location, such as lines that may travel from a well to a storage tank not co-located on the same wellpad, or to a gathering line. The rule permits COGCC to share resulting, more specific geospatial information with local governments through a confidentiality agreement.

Requirements that any flowlines not in use – but not yet abandoned – are locked and marked. All such lines must continue to undergo integrity testing under the same standards as active lines until abandonment. Any risers associated with abandoned flowlines must be cut below grade. This rule change makes permanent the post-Firestone order to eliminate above-ground risers connected to abandoned flowlines.

More detailed requirements for operators to demonstrate flowline integrity, including updated standards for integrity-testing lines, more testing options that align with newer technology, and the elimination of pressure-testing exemptions for low pressure lines.

Requirements for full operator participation in the Utility Notification Center of Colorado’s “one-call” program to ensure a centralized home for all data on flowline locations and access to that information through the established 811 “call-before-you-dig” system.

The new flowline rules and enhanced participation by operators in 811 include three key components of state actions outlined by Gov. Hickenlooper following a three-month review of oil and gas operations last year. The review followed the home explosion in Firestone last April that killed two people and injured a third.

“Our work with operators last spring and summer to identify, quantify and test all flowlines near residential areas was a significant start,” said COGCC director Matt Lepore. “These rules – and additional actions ordered by the Governor that are still unfolding – continue to keep our focus on this work.”

The final draft of the proposed rules can be found here, and an overview of the COGCC’s basis and purpose for the rules here. The latter provides context and analysis for the rulemaking. All documents associated with the rulemaking, including formal statements from parties to the hearing, are housed here.

The Commission also directed COGCC staff to empanel a stakeholder group representing a cross-section of interests to review current and developing instrument-based technologies and methods for preventing or detecting leaks and spills from flowlines. COGCC staff will present to the Commission quarterly on the group’s progress with a final presentation of the results of the stakeholder group’s study, along with any associated recommendations for changes to COGCC’s policies or rules, within a year.

The flowline rulemaking is the latest in a consistent and long-running effort to strengthen the regulatory oversight of the COGCC, dating to 2008.

The COGCC, under the Hickenlooper Administration, has crafted rules to increase distances between drilling and neighborhoods; reduce the effects of light, noise and odors; protect groundwater; reduce air emissions in partnership with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment; disclose hydraulic fracturing chemicals; tighten requirements for spill reporting; significantly elevate penalties for operators violating Commission rules; toughen requirements for operating in floodplains; and amplify the role of local governments in siting large operations near communities.

The Commission has also significantly expanded inspection, engineering, reclamation, and environmental staff; increased ease of access and the volume of data available to the public; intensified collaboration with local governments; sponsored ongoing studies to increase understanding of impacts to air and water; and adopted several formal policies to address health, safety, and environmental issues brought about by new technologies, all while experiencing an unprecedented increase in oil and gas development in Colorado.

Firestone April, 2017 photo credit: 9News.com

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott):

The rules are intended to prevent a repeat of the April 17 explosion that killed two people, injured a third and destroyed a house in the town of Firestone, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) north of Denver. Investigators said the explosion was caused by odorless, unrefined natural gas from a severed flow line.

The line was believed to be abandoned but was still connected to an operating well with the valve turned to the open position, investigators said.

The flow line was severed about 10 feet (3 meters) from the house, and gas seeped into the home’s basement, investigators said. The well and pipeline were in place several years before the house was built.

Colorado has nearly 129,000 flow lines within about 1,000 feet (300 meters) of occupied buildings, according to energy company reports submitted to the state last year.

The proximity of oil and gas wells to homes and schools is a contentious issue in Colorado, especially in the fast-growing Front Range urban corrido, which overlaps with an oil and gas field. Firestone is in the midst of the growth area.

The new regulations says flow lines that are permanently taken out of service must be disconnected, drained and sealed at both ends and any above-ground portion must be removed. The rules also allow energy companies to simply remove the lines.

The proposal also requires energy companies to provide information on the location of flow lines to the Call 811 program, which marks the site of underground utilities at a property owner’s request. That’s meant to help homeowners and construction companies avoid inadvertently severing a line.

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

Rural Voices of Colorado forum recap

A U.S. Bureau of Reclamation illustration shows the river’s varying names prior to 1921. The Colorado River began from the confluence of the Green River and Grand River, a fact that irked Colorado congressman Edward Taylor.
CREDIT LIBRARY OF CONGRESS ARCHIVES

From WesternSlopeNow.com (Brandon Thompson):

In day two of the Rural Voices of Colorado forum the groups Action 22, Club 20 and Pro 15 discussed the future of natural resources with several law makers including Lt. Governor Donna Lynne, a democrat, and State Treasurer, Walker Stapleton, a republican. Both are running for their parties respective nomination to be Colorado’s next governor.

“That’s what Club 20 is all about is natural resources and water.” Christian Reece, the executive director of Club 20, said, “Our energy portfolio is a mix. It’s coal, it’s natural gas, it’s oil, it’s renewable energies, it’s wind [and] solar. We’re seeing a change in that mix right now, but we support all of the above.”

Changes, Lynne says, could be market driven.

“Coal is more expensive than some of the other renewable and certainly natural gas.” Lynne said, “We just got to get ready for that, we still have a lot of coal production in this state.”

She proposes training for other energy sectors for former coal workers. Stapleton isn’t ready to call it for coal, but agrees in the need for vocational training and the future of natural gas.

“The western slope, we have an abundance of natural gas resources in the Piceance basin.” Stapleton said, “I think that’s transformative to the economic development of Western Colorado.”

The chief use of one of western Colorado’s largest resources, isn’t energy based yet, but its future could be one of the most pressing issues for the state.

“The Colorado river is the lifeblood of western Colorado.” Reece said, “We need to make sure the flows are high enough so there’s not a call on the Colorado River.”

Colorado doesn’t import any water, only exports, meaning needs balanced between our state and those downstream.

“Colorado, we’re obviously running up a supply and demand gap that’s pretty significant.” Laura Belanger, a water resources engineer for the [Western Resource Advocates] group.

Colorado’s population could double— adding millions of water users across the state and hundreds of thousands on the Western Slope.

‘Orphaned’ oil and gas wells are on the rise — @HighCountryNews

Oil and gas development on the Roan via Airphotona

From The High Country News (Josh Zaffos):

IIn March 2015, Joe MacLaren, a state oil and gas inspector in Colorado, drove out to the Taylor 3 oil well near the tiny town of Hesperus, in the southwestern corner of the state. He found an entire checklist of violations. Atom Petroleum, a Texas-based company, had bought out more than 50 oil and gas wells after the company that drilled them went bankrupt. Now, Atom was pumping oil from those wells, but Taylor 3 was leaking crude, and it was missing required signage as well as screens on infrastructure to keep birds away from toxic gunk. Worse, the company had not performed safety tests to ensure the well wasn’t leaking fluids underground.

Over the following months, the state slapped Atom with fines, performed follow-up inspections, and demanded a $360,000 bond to cover the cost of shutting down the wells, just in case Atom — hardly proving itself to operate in a trustworthy manner — didn’t clean up its act.

Indeed, the list of violations MacLaren and others discovered kept growing, yet Atom kept on pumping oil and gas, and did not pay fines or put up the $360,000 bond. So in 2016, the state took a rare step: It revoked the company’s drilling permit. Atom’s business, it said, was no longer welcome in Colorado.

Atom didn’t bother to follow through on one last important obligation either. When companies cease production, they are supposed to plug wells with cement to reduce the risk of leaks, and to restore vegetation and wildlife habitat aboveground. They recoup their bonds if they do so, whereas if they don’t, the state cashes them. In this case, Atom flouted its responsibility to plug and reclaim its wells, leaving the state to clean up its mess. Colorado did claim a $60,000 bond Atom posted when it first started operating, but the cleanup could cost taxpayers 10 times that.

The 50 or so wells Atom left behind comprise Colorado’s largest-ever “orphaned well” case, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But it’s not an isolated problem. Companies that go out of business, become bankrupt, or, like Atom, simply ignore the rules, tend to skip out on cleanup and land restoration. And since bond amounts set by states and the federal government rarely if ever cover real-world cleanup costs, it can be cheaper for a company to forfeit a bond than to follow reclamation rules.

Orphaned wells are more likely than properly plugged “abandoned” wells to leak pollutants, including methane gas, which can contaminate groundwater and even trigger explosions. So it’s troubling that the number of such wells in the West has soared. A downturn in energy prices starting back in 2008 has led energy companies to orphan thousands of wells across Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. States are struggling even to tally them, let alone remediate them. Officially, Colorado has 244 orphaned wells on its books, but state officials estimate another 400 have yet to be located. And with a new drilling boom tapping deep shale formations along Colorado’s urban Front Range, some worry that the next bust will saddle the public with thousands more.

On state and private land, major energy corporations typically explore and drill for oil and gas across large fields and then sell parcels to smaller operators when production dips. The little guys can still turn profits, just not at the margins big corporations need to satisfy shareholders.

But small companies tend to have shakier financing and are therefore more vulnerable to market swings. When gas prices plunged starting in 2008, it bankrupted many small companies producing marginal amounts of methane from coal seams, and thousands of coalbed methane wells were orphaned.

In Wyoming, the problem reached epidemic proportions. In 2014, under Republican Gov. Matt Mead, the state implemented an aggressive strategy to identify and plug orphan wells. To hedge against future busts, the state also significantly hiked the bonds companies must put up before drilling. It based those increases partly on well depth, since the deeper shale oil and gas wells now being targeted are much more expensive to reclaim than conventional shallow wells. Wyoming has since reclaimed 1,700 sites on state and private lands, using taxes and royalties paid by industry to chip away at the backlog caused by the spike in orphaned wells and insufficient bond funds. But it has also identified nearly 4,600 more orphaned wells — and that’s just on state and private lands.

“Wyoming is more ahead of the game than other states,” says Jill Morrison, director of the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council. Even so, the state “can’t keep up,” she says, and the higher bond rates still don’t fully cover reclamation costs when a company orphans its wells. Reclamation on federal lands in Wyoming, where there are thousands of additional orphaned wells, has been even slower.

In Colorado, the state currently uses bonds and revenue from fines to cover cleanup costs for orphans. But that generates less than $850,000 a year, so the state has only plugged and reclaimed 52 orphaned wells since 2013, at an average cost of $82,500 each. According to a recent state analysis, dealing with all 244 of its known orphans will cost an estimated $5.3 million annually over the next five years.

This August, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed several tougher rules for monitoring and reclaiming both orphaned and properly plugged wells. The announcement followed a deadly house explosion in a north Denver suburb last April, which elevated concern about abandoned wells of all kinds since it was caused by a severed methane gas flow line from a properly plugged and sealed well. Hickenlooper’s reforms included creating a fund that would be used to eliminate the state’s orphaned-well backlog within a decade. It would be bankrolled by energy companies, possibly through a property-tax increase, and could also pay for services like in-home methane monitors for neighborhoods that are next to or even on top of old wells.

Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, acknowledges the need to “get ahead of a potential problem,” but questions whether new taxes are the solution. Instead, she says, the state could direct existing tax revenues to the issue, or create a voluntary program for companies to help plug and reclaim wells. In Oklahoma, for instance, companies can choose to divert 1 cent for every $100 of oil and gas they produce to a program that restores orphaned wells. The state claims that 95 percent of operators participate and the program has restored 16,000 well sites since 1994.

State Rep. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat, says he would like to see higher bond rates in Colorado, but he doesn’t expect much cooperation from state Republicans. In a letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, two state GOP leaders expressed concern over Hickenlooper’s proposal for an orphan-well fund and disagreed with his portrayal of the issue as a “vast” problem. But without more money and regulatory muscle, Foote says, the state is not just ducking the current problem; it’s inviting future calamity.

Since the deadly Denver house explosion last spring, watchdogs have documented an alarming number of poorly monitored abandoned wells and flow lines beneath Front Range communities. Some of this potentially perilous infrastructure lies directly beneath neighborhoods. With several small companies, some already cited for violations, currently drilling and applying to drill for oil and gas in Boulder and neighboring counties, Foote and others fear the next price crash could create a hazardous landscape rife with orphaned wells. And dealing with those wells could be even more complicated than before, because industry is now tapping deep shale formations, where wells are much more difficult and expensive to plug, reclaim, and inspect.

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are currently 63 financially “distressed” operators in the state, who collectively own almost 4,000 wells. These companies have either missed required safety tests or aren’t producing much, signs that they may be running out of money and therefore more likely to abandon their sites. If even a fraction of those companies become deadbeats, the state’s problems will quickly multiply. Without broad action, says Foote, “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

@GovofCO ready to fight feds over changing state oil and gas and other environmental rules

Natural gas flares near a community in Colorado. Federal rules aim to lower risks of natural gas development. Photo credit the Environmental Defense Fund.

From The Aspen Times (David Krause):

“We’re still the only state that has such rigorous regulations. Some half-cocked official in Washington might decide they want to make an example of that and say it’s too much regulation,” Hickenlooper said. “We’ve worked hard to go through all the regulations to get rid of all the deadwood, the red tape, the bureaucracy and have lean, efficient regulation that actually helps businesses to succeed.

“I don’t want the federal government to come in and tell us what we created between business and the nonprofit communities isn’t good anymore because it doesn’t fit their political paradigm.”

He said states no longer can wait on the federal government for help, especially as the county grows economically and in population.

“I’m not sure the federal government is going to be much of a partner as we look at solving all the problems of our growth,” he said. “We’re going to have to solve them ourselves.”

[…]

From now until the next governor is inaugurated on Jan. 8, 2019, Hickenlooper said his administration will work to be a leader on the state level. After that, he just wants to be useful.

“There is a wonderful poem by a woman named Marge Piercy called ‘To Be of Use.’ I’m going to look for a good way to be of use,” he said of life outside the governor’s office. “I’ve got another year or 370 days or something like that. We’re going to finish strong. We’re going to push on the places where we think Colorado should be a national model.

Dacono: Benzene tainted groundwater removed at site of tank battery

From The Boulder Daily Camera (Jennifer Kovaleski):

According to a report to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency responsible for regulating the industry, Anadarko discovered the contaminated ground water and soil while trying to dig up an old pump in early December.

Anadarko had to remove 200 barrels of tainted ground water, and lab tests found benzene 900 times the amount allowed by the state…

A spokeswoman for Anadarko said the company is in the process of removing a tank battery at the site and that’s how they discovered the toxic ground water.

COGCC said it is still conducting tests to figure that whether nearby water wells were contaminated, but said these types of releases usually don’t go beyond the immediate area.

Some Colorado River District constituents challenge hiring of Zane Kessler

A map showing the boundaries of the Colorado River District, and its 15 member counties.

By Brent Gardner-Smith, Aspen Journalism

GRAND JUNCTION – The Colorado River District says it stands behind the recent hiring of Zane Kessler as communications director, despite concerns from some of the more-conservative counties in the district about his past political activities regarding oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area.

Scott McInnis, a Mesa County commissioner and Glenwood Springs native, represented the Western Slope and Colorado’s 3rd District as a Republican in Congress from 1993-2005.

He said at a special river district meeting in Grand Junction last week that he wants to ensure Kessler is “riding for the River District brand,” and not that of his former employer, the Thompson Divide Coalition.

“It’s important that we all ride for the same brand,” McInnis said. “But sometimes its hard to change brands.”

Kessler was executive director for the TDC from 2012 until earlier this year when he took the communications job as part of the river district’s external affairs team.

In his previous role, Kessler championed the TDC’s efforts to either buy out leaseholders or have the Bureau of Land Management cancel several oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area west of Carbondale.

Late last year, the BLM, following an extensive review, did in fact cancel 25 undeveloped leases in the divide.

Most of the canceled leases were on lands within Garfield and Pitkin counties, but three leases were partially in Mesa County, covering about 3,800 acres.

A broader BLM review of 65 leases in the region resulted in other leases outside the Thompson Divide in Mesa County near De Beque being modified with new restrictions. Other leases were reaffirmed in full.

In addition to lobbying for the leases to be canceled, the coalition also advocated for the White River National Forest to close off the Thompson Divide area to new leasing as part of its 20-year oil and gas leasing management plan approved in 2014.

McInnis said the efforts by the Thompson Divide Coalition lead to restrictions on oil and gas development throughout the whole White River National Forest.

“What happened is, their efforts then expanded to the new White River National Forest policy and [now] they are not going to allow any more drilling,” McInnis said in a phone interview. “That’s a huge forest.”

A special Colorado River District meeting underway on Dec. 6, 2017, in a ballroom at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. The meeting was sparked by opposition from some of the 15-member counties in the river district to the hiring of Zane Kessler as its new communications director and lobbyist.

Root of the issue

At the Dec. 6 meeting, McInnis and a posse of other county commissioners from Mesa, Moffatt, Rio Blanco, and Hinsdale counties, called Kessler’s allegiances into question.

Their concerns track to a comment Kessler made in a Sept. 6 Glenwood Springs Post Independent article about his departure from the TDC that he may continue to volunteer for the organization, if the opportunity arose.

In the article, Kessler was quoted by Post Independent reporter John Stroud as saying, “I will continue to be active with the coalition in a volunteer capacity.”

McInnis then called Stroud to confirm that the quote was accurate, and Stroud assured him it was, according to both Stroud and McInnis.

McInnis said at the Dec. 6 meeting that Mesa County had “deep differences” with the TDC. And he said he’s worried that the coalition might next turn its attention to the Colorado River and that he was upset no one had called Mesa County to ask about Kessler.

Kessler started as communications director for the River District on Sept. 5. He reports to Chris Treese, the district’s external affairs manager. Like Treese, Kessler is a registered lobbyist for the river district, which was formed in 1937 to protect and develop Western Slope water interests.

The district’s board is made up of representatives from 15 Western Slope counties, appointed by the commissioners in the member counties for three-year terms. Member counties include Delta, Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mesa, Moffat, Montrose, Ouray, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Routt, Saguache, and Summit counties.

Zane Kessler, on one of the trips he made on horseback through the Thompson Divide area. Kessler grew up in Oklahoma and spent time on a family member’s ranch in east Texas.

GM backs decision

Outgoing Colorado River District General Manager Eric Kuhn, who is in the process of handing duties over to new GM, Andy Mueller, assured McInnis and the others that he was comfortable with the hiring process and the ultimate decision to hire Kessler.

Kuhn acknowledged in a Sept. 8 memo to river district board members that he had received a call from a “very concerned county commissioner” about the Kessler hiring, in apparent reference to McInnis, who later said he called both Kuhn and Treese.

“Both Chris [Treese] and I have confirmed that Zane has severed his ties with Thompson Divide and works exclusively for the River District under Chris,” Kuhn wrote in that memo.

He said the district received 25 applications for the position. Eight candidates were interviewed by a committee of five district employees, and Kessler was the unanimous choice, he said in the memo.

“”I was quite emphatic 1n my defense of our hiring process,” Kuhn told his board. “It was competitive. It was not arbitrary. There are no political litmus tests. We don’t ask what political party they belong to or who they voted for, or anything else of that nature. Where we had concerns, we vetted those issues.”

McInnis was perturbed by Kuhn’s reference to a “political litmus test.”

“This has nothing to do with partisan politics,” McInnis said in a phone interview after the meeting last week. “I don’t care whether he is a Democrat, a Republican, unaffiliated. I care about who he led. He was the four-star general for the Thompson Divide, and we had a rough history with them, coming into Mesa County, uninvited,” McInnis said.

Kessler, in a Sept. 12 letter to the editor of the Post Independent sought to assure his critics.

“While I am no longer working for the coalition, I look forward to continuing to work with diverse, Western Slope interests to protect western Colorado water for the welfare of the entire district.”

Contacted after the river district meeting last week, Kessler declined to talk on the record, but offered in a follow-up statement via email: “I have one job nowadays: to advocate on behalf of the Western Slope’s water interests and the water interests of every county in the district.”

According to Thomas Divide Coalition board member Chuck Ogilby, the coalition is in a quiet mode, and there are no plans to expand their mission beyond preserving the Thompson Divide area.

“Our mission was solely based on the Roaring Fork valley and the environments right around the Thompson Divide lands,” Ogilby said. “It was a very singular mission and continues to be.”

But McInnis thinks otherwise.

“My understanding is that discussions have taken place, and that the Thompson Divide intends to remain a coalition to take on other causes,” McInnis said in an interview. “And it seems to me the most logical cause they’re going to take on, not today, but they’ll be there, is the Colorado River.”

And he noted, “If there is anything that is sacrosanct over here on the Western Slope, it’s water, and that Colorado River.”

One of several large irrigation canals in Mesa County that divert water from the Colorado River.

Pressing the issue

The same day that Kessler’s letter appeared, on Sept. 12, McInnis and fellow Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese sent a letter to about 50 people, including all of the river district’s board members, according to McInnis.

“Mr. Kessler, as an anti-oil and gas activist, has led the effort, for many years, to cancel oil and gas leases on public lands, including retroactive action to existing leases,” McInnis and Pugliese wrote. “These cancellations will have a broad and far reaching detrimental impact on energy related needs and jobs on the Western Slope.”

They said Kessler’s prior positions on behalf of the coalition “conflict with many of the River District’s goals and positions, and are harmful to the critical water rights the River District is charged with protecting for the multi-use concepts of energy, development, agriculture, to name a few.”

During the ensuing weeks, letters critical of the hiring decision were also sent from commissioners in Moffat, Rio Blanco and Hinsdale counties.

The three commissioners in Rio Blanco County advised the river district in a Sept. 25 letter, “If your decision to hire Mr. Kessler was made based upon a change in direction and philosophy by the CRD Board, we are even more concerned. A biased anti-energy, pro-environmentalist approach to public lands decisions would have a significant detrimental effect on the citizens of Rio Blanco County. It is our hope that the hiring of Mr. Kessler is not an indication of a change in direction or philosophy by the CRD Board. If it is, we are extremely concerned.”

On Oct. 3, Kuhn responded to the Rio Blanco commissioners in a letter, saying, “None who interviewed Zane and none who have had the opportunity to work with him had any question that he is a consummate professional who understands what it means to be an advocate for his employer.”

He also noted that the river district’s two attorneys once both worked for Front Range water interests, and that had not kept them from loyally serving the district.

“The River District has never hired nor failed to hire because of a candidate’s past associations, and I hope we never will,” Kuhn wrote. “Our two attorneys both represented and were closely associated with major Front Range municipalities immediately before joining the Colorado River District.”

But the issue did not die down. In fact, it morphed to include other concerns about the river district.

On Nov. 9, Kuhn sent a memo to the board informing them that Mesa Commissioner Pugliese was asking about the size of the district’s staff of 25 people, their salaries and benefits, and the district’s offices.

“I have to share with you that, to me, the most troubling implication of these questions and this controversy is the suggestion that the River District Board is not properly executing its fiduciary responsibilities,” Kuhn told his board.

On Nov. 13, the three Mesa County commissioners sent a letter to Tom Alvey, the president of the river district board, assuring him it was not a political issue and that they thought the river district staff was now using the suggestion of a “political litmus test” to “spin” the situation and “avoid answering the legitimate inquiries” made by Mesa County.

Then, on Nov. 22, Pugliese raised the issue of whether Mesa County should even stay in the river district.

“I am still trying to determine if it is beneficial for Mesa County to stay in the River District, and if staff is really representing the interests of our Mesa County constituents,” she wrote.

All that led to the Dec. 6 special meeting in Grand Junction, where McInnis reiterated his concerns to river district board members and staff, including incoming GM Mueller.

“If we don’t have the toughest, smartest, shrewdest voice in that state capitol, we are going to find an internal rift, and we’re going to find we’re losing a lot of ground,” McInnis said.

Mueller responded by saying he took McInnis’ comments to heart.

“We will be examining all of our staff members and expecting that they will all be the best,” Mueller said. “And I do mean the best team for everybody in the room. We will be reviewing our personnel hiring process.”

He added, “I do think that getting input from our constituents is important when we’re engaging in critical hiring.”

A mule deer browses near one of the Willsource Enterprise wells in the headwaters area of West Divide Creek, in the Mesa County corner of the Thompson Divide.

“Vendetta meeting”

Kessler did get some support at the meeting from other constituent county commissioners.

Rachel Richards of Pitkin County said she considered it “a vendetta meeting,” and warned the other commissioners about “wrongful interference” with the district’s employment practices.

“It seems like an attack on all the citizens of the Crystal River Valley, the ranchers, agriculturalists, the outfitters, the fishermen, everyone who came together to become the Thompson Divide Coalition,” Richards said. “Zane Kessler might seem like a figurehead to that group, but I’ve never seen as much unanimous support by a huge diverse community as I saw behind the Thompson Divide Coalition.”

Merritt Linke, a commissioner from Grand County, added, “He is obviously good at what he does. … Maybe we can accept that someone on this staff knew what they were doing, and he is going to be able to ride for the brand.”

Even McInnis said during the post-meeting phone interview that he had respect for Kessler’s professional abilities and the job he did for the Thompson Divide Coalition.

“It mushroomed into this large, very well-politically connected, very well-financed, strong organization under the leadership of Zane,” McInnis said. “I’ve never questioned Zane’s ability to organize something. He did a good job with them — it’s just the wrong goals — but anyway, he did a good job.”

He also said he was satisfied with the outcome of the special meeting.

“The river district is going to take a close look at their personnel policies in January, and if they need tightening up, tighten them up,” McInnis said.

Mesa County Commissioner Scott McInnis, in white shirt, talking with officials from the Colorado River District at a meeting in Grand Junction on Dec. 6, 2017.

Timeline and links to public documents

Below are links to public documents provided by the Colorado River District in response to requests from Aspen Journalism. The documents are listed by date.

(Note: “CRWCD” is short for Colorado River Water Conservation District, the organization’s full name).

5.1.17: CRWCD posts a job description for the new position of communications director.

9.5.17: Zane Kessler starts his new job as communications director at CRWCD.

9.6.17: Glenwood Springs Post Independent article, “Kessler leaving Thompson Divide Coalition for Colorado River District job.”

9.8.17: memo from Kuhn at CRWCD to board on the hiring of Kessler.

9.12.17: letter to editor from Zane Kessler, published in GSPI.

9.12.17: letter from Mesa County to CRWCD board members and others.

9.13/14.17: CRWCD meeting minutes from meeting GJ w/ Kessler in attendance and Kuhn discussing hire practices.

9.19.17 CRWCD names Andy Mueller as next GM.

9.25.17: letter from Rio Blanco County to CRWCD re Kessler.

9.27.17: letter from Hinsdale County to CRWCD re Kessler.

10.3.17: letter from CRWCD to Rio Blanco BOCC re Kessler.

10.10.17: letter from White River and Douglas Creek districts to CRWCD.

10.17.17: letter from Moffat County to CRWCD re Kessler.

11.6.17: letter from CRWCD board president to county commissioners.

11.9.17: Kuhn sends a memo to CRWCD board on “budget issues” raised by Commissioner Pugliese.

11.10.17: letter from CRWCD to Rose Pugliese from CRWCD.

11.13.17: letter from Mesa County to CRWCD board.

11.15.17: various emails sent to CRWCD on pending 12.6.17 meeting.

11.22/24.17: emails sent from various county commissioners on upcoming CRWCD meeting.

12.6.17: CRWCD district meeting attendance sheet.

Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism is collaborating on the coverage of rivers and water with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, The Aspen Times, the Vail Daily, and the Summit Daily News. The Post Independent published a version of this story on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017.