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Paonia comments on pending O&G legislation

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Following discussion by Paonia trustees on action item regarding pending oil and gas legislation, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Minerals will include comments from the Town of Paonia in its official record.

The board voted, 5-1, to direct town administrator Ken Knight to submit a letter in response to HR 3225, the "Restoring Community Input and Public Protections on Oil and Gas Leasing Act of 2019." The bill aims to "amend the Mineral Leasing Act to make certain adjustments in leasing on federal lands for oil and gas drilling and other purposes."

The three-point letter reflects written comments submitted to the subcommittee by the Valley Organic Growers Association on behalf of its 125 member growers, farmers and ranches. Comments address potential impacts of oil and gas activity on the North Fork area community, the need for adequate time for all interested parties to fully consider issues and provide meaningful and relevant comments to land management agencies, and provisions that allow for shorter lease terms.

On June 20, Paonia activist Pete Kolbenschlag, director of Mountain West Strategies, traveled to Washington, DC, to testify before the subcommittee in support of the bill. Kolbenschlag, who submitted his comments to the town board with his request to be on the agenda, lauded the North Fork Valley's agricultural and coal-mining heritage. He described how the water that flows into irrigation ditches also flows over public lands, and that recreation industries in the area that could be adversely affected by oil and gas activity represent $2 billion in annual resident spending, and how hunting is a "huge economic boost."

The bill, he said, addresses "some of the challenges" small communities like the North Fork Valley face in getting their voices heard and said "the bill would help fix a broken oil and gas leasing system."

The bill would decrease the term of leases from the current 10 years to five years, require better up-front planning and increased transparency, and mandate a minimum 90-day public comment period for pending oil and gas leases. The current administration allows for a minimum of 15 days for public comment, he said. For hunters and farmers and ranchers who irrigate, that leaves little time to visit pending lease sites and gain a better understand how those leases may affect them.

Kolbenschlag said his intent is to provide the town an opportunity to comment to the subcommittee on the bill ahead of the July 5 deadline. He said that while legislation is slowly making its way to the Senate, commenting now, "allows the town to have a stake in the process, whereas later in the process it won't be quite as noticeable.

This is not an oil and gas leasing bill, said Kolbenschlag. "It's trying to put the public back in the process somewhere along the line."

"It's something that clearly affects us," said mayor Charles Stewart of oil and gas activity in the area. "Without commenting on the merits of the proposed federal legislation, I always have concerns when this board is being asked to review, analyze, comment on legislation that is pending before another governmental entity."

The board, said Stewart, " has an awful lot of work to do just simply to stay on top of the issues that we absolutely have to address."

"I believe this issue comes before the board quite a bit," said Kolbenschlag, offering to share the five-page piece of legislation. "These issues are important for the town, and will continue to come up in the future." When sales are proposed at Paonia Reservoir or in the town's drinking water table, there needs to be time for council to consider what its residents want them to say. "With all due respect, I think there's an opportunity to support particular pieces of the legislation," he said.

Calling it an issue "vitally important to the town," trustee Mary Bachran urged the board to allow town administrator Ken Knight to draft a letter. "Any step we can take to bring a small town's voice to the table is a benefit to this community," said Bachran. Trustee Samira Hart also urged support.

Trustee Bill Bear called it "inappropriate" for the board to approve a letter without having a draft in front of them to consider. He then questioned the authenticity of Kolbenschlag's request. "So all a person has to do is come in at the last minute and get a letter written," said Bear.

"I don't get that sense that applies in that situation," said Stewart. He said he agrees with the part of the legislation allowing for longer comment periods, recalling last fall when the town had to scramble last fall to submit a letter to the BLM regarding an environmental review proposed gas leasing that could impact the area's watershed.

Mayor protem Chelsea Bookout said she has also traveled to Washington to comment on legislation. It's helpful, she said, to let representatives "who may not know where Paonia is, that we're here and we're having a continuing conversation ... They want to hear from us."

The hearing can be viewed at https://youtu.be/2rK6KPh3m8A. Kolbenschlag's testimony occurs at 1:09.00.

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