DENVER (AP) — A Colorado congressman who complained about a fracking rig next to his vacation property says he got no preferential treatment from state regulators who fined the drilling company.
In fact, Democratic Rep. Jared Polis says the $26,000 fine for improper drilling near his northern Colorado land wasn't steep enough.
Polis discovered a drilling operation on property next to his vacation retreat last month. Polis has long voiced concerns about the public health impact of the drilling procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and he filed a lawsuit against the producer, Sundance Energy. Polis said the drilling rig was too tall and too close to his land, among other complaints.
Polis later withdrew his lawsuit, telling supporters in an email that "the rules are biased toward the oil and gas industry." But he did file a complaint with Colorado's Oil & Gas Conservation Commission by Aug. 6. Just two weeks later, the agency fined Sundance $26,000 and ordered it to meet with Polis to talk about reducing noise and dust.
In an interview Thursday, Polis told The Associated Press the fine was "just a slap on the wrist" given the potential financial rewards from what he called an illegally placed well.
"What's to stop them from drilling anywhere if all they face is a $26,000 fine?" Polis said. "You're up against a Goliath, and as a homeowner you don't have a lot of options."
Sundance Energy didn't return messages seeking comment Thursday.
Colorado officials insist the Polis case wasn't expedited because he is a member of Congress.
Todd Hartman, a spokesman with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said all citizen complaints about oil and natural gas drilling are "top priority" and are investigated within 24 to 48 hours. He called the Polis case "pretty cut-and-dried, with a straightforward set of facts."
Investigators concluded that the first of three wells dug at the property constituted a violation of the state's setback rule, requiring wells to be no less than 1.5 times the total rig height away from the closest power line or road.
Hartman cautioned against comparing responses to unrelated complaints, saying each case is different. On any given case, he said, investigators may need more time to determine if there are any infractions, what enforcement steps are needed and what actions are required to fix or mitigate any problems.
Citizen activists who wrestle with drilling regulators cheered the outcome of Polis' case, even if their own cases are taking longer to work out.
"More power to him," said Sara Barwinski, who lives in the same county as Polis' vacation property and is trying with neighbors to block fracking on a site adjacent to a high school in Greeley. Barwinski's group has been trying to stop planned drilling for months and is awaiting a Sept. 3 city council hearing.
"Do I wish I was a congressman and I could make my problems go away so quickly? Sure," Barwinski said. "But if this has helped sensitize him to the issue, that's a positive. We need more people to get mad."
Polis said his action hasn't stopped fracking on his neighbor's land and that his fight will continue.
"Fracking is about to begin even in the well that was illegally placed," Polis said. "Homeowners should not be expected to be up against dozens of lawyers to keep their family safe."
Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt