Public service, trust, and the oil and gas industry

Public service, working for the public as an employee of the government, should be seen as an honorable and important role for anyone.

The tasks given these public servants all stem from the laws passed by the local, state and federal elected bodies. Without people to act as the voice of these laws, government of any type would be impossible.

At San Juan Citizens Alliance, we work with many dozens of public servants in public-land management and regulatory and oversight agencies. While we at times strongly disagree with their decisions, and even whether they are properly following the dictates of the laws they are working under, we rarely believe they are anything other than honorable.

There are times however, when the integrity of individuals within agencies, and even whole agencies, comes into doubt.

For the government to continue to function with the support of the public, it is important that questions of integrity be dealt with in a strong and consistent manner.

A few weeks ago we learned that Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, had accepted a position as an attorney with a law firm that represents some of the largest oil and gas companies working in Colorado. Without in any way charging that Neslin is less than honorable, the situation is problematic. There is a well-beaten path from the COGCC to industry; Neslin is just the latest in a string of people who have made the move.

The COGCC for many years was seen as a puppet for the oil and gas industry. Until recently, the board that oversees the agency was mandated to be comprised primarily of people from the industry, and many of us who had dealings with the agency in the past felt our concerns were either ignored or actively opposed. With a new round of oil and gas boom hitting Colorado, it is important that the people of the state know the agency is acting in the publicís interest.

The revolving door between the COGCC must be closed. It is not about the individuals but about the need for public trust.

This is not just a Colorado problem. A few years ago, Steve Henke, then district manager for the Farmington office of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, left that position to become president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, the primary industry lobbying group in the state.

According to the inspector general, Henke had previously taken gifts and travel money from the oil and gas industry. A formal investigation was begun but dropped.

Despite Henke taking ethics classes for years, and a two-year postemployment restriction, the Department of Interior has allowed Henke to engage on behalf of the oil and gas industry with the very BLM office he used to run.

Not many public servants act as brazenly as Henke, but the move by Dave Neslin, and the revolving door at the COGCC, raise similar doubts about whether the agencies overseeing one of the most powerful industries on the planet are acting as the public servants they are mandated to be.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.