RIFLE, Colo. -- Judy Jordan got her orders before she started her job.
"You must be absolutely neutral," she remembers the assistant county manager of Garfield County, Colo., telling her during her job interview. "I took that as pretty strong guidance."
The job was "oil and gas liaison" for the county on Colorado's Western Slope, negotiating disputes between drillers and people living in a petroleum boomtown.
Jordan was hired, and said she tried to live by that neutrality. Approach every situation with an open mind. Resolve problems. Stick to the facts.
Nevertheless, she ran afoul of the local oil and gas industry and, earlier this year, found herself out of a job. Her story reflects the difficulty public officials can have in finding the balance in oil and gas country between protecting the public and promoting development.
Though the hammer fell after she sent a snippy email to her supervisor, Jordan says she was pushed out at the behest of drilling companies that made her a scapegoat.
"It was a setup, and it was a political move," Jordan said. "They wanted me to be a cheerleader for them. I felt that my role was not to be a cheerleader."
Representatives of drilling companies say Jordan failed to live up to her promise to be neutral, and instead tended to side with landowners and industry critics. But they also say they had nothing to do with pushing her out.
"We had our differences with her," said Doug Hock, spokesman for Encana Corp., one of the biggest gas producers on the Western Slope. "We never asked that she be dismissed. There's a difference between letting your feelings be known and trying to get someone fired."
They also recognize that Jordan had to walk a fine line, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
"Both sides accused her of taking sides at one time or another," said Ludlam, who responded to a reporter's inquiry to Williams Production RMT, another major driller and pipeline company in the area.
County Manager Ed Green did not respond to requests for comment. But others clearly saw Jordan's departure as a victory for oil and gas.
"Well done! About damn time," Craig Meis, commissioner in neighboring Mesa County, wrote in an email, obtained by Greenwire, that was circulated between Jordan's supervisors. "Nice to see that Garfield County is 'open for business.'"
Garfield County is where Colorado shifts from mountain playground to working Western landscape. Skiers come to the county seat of Glenwood Springs, a gateway to Aspen, to soak their bruises in its famed waters.
Somewhere "down valley," toward Rifle and Silt, is the "clog line," where the footwear of choice switches to boots of the cowboy and steel-toed varieties. As the Rockies flatten out, the undulating landscape is covered in sagebrush and dotted with rigs, wells and storage pits.
The county has found itself in the middle of several high-profile drilling mishaps over the years. Laura Amos of Silt, Colo., blamed hydraulic fracturing chemicals for the rare tumor she developed after a well near her home blew out in 2001 during the fracturing process. State regulators concluded fracturing wasn't to blame for the problems, but fined the operator $99,400 because gas was found in her well.
In the same part of the county, a drilling crew poured a faulty cement seal around another well in 2004 that allowed gas and benzene to seep into a nearby stream, called West Divide Creek. The state hit Encana with a fine and declared a drilling moratorium in the area for several years.
People complained in 2009 that gas was once again seeping into the creek, but the state rejected the claims. The residents' complaints were detailed in the 2010 anti-drilling documentary "Gasland."
Jordan, a matter-of-fact woman with short brown hair and a law degree, arrived here in 2007. She came from the East Coast, where she had worked for a chemical company and also as a regulator in Delaware and Pennsylvania. As a kayaker and mountain biker, the West called to her.
As a measure of how contentious the job would be, county officials invited her to interview a local Encana official and a landowner in a bitter dispute with the company.
There was full employment, and developers couldn't build hotels and homes fast enough to house all the workers. But the culture of a drilling boomtown conflicted with the tourism and housing development that had come before it.
In the 1990s and into the early part of the century, the Western Slope economy had shifted from mining and drilling to tourism and real estate. Garfield and the Western Slope billed themselves as great places to hike, kayak and retire.
Places like Rifle and Silt became bedroom communities for workers in the ski towns "up-valley."
Shifting back to an extraction economy could be jarring. Big trucks, towering rigs lit up like football fields on Friday night and giant pits with drilling waste were a surprise to some who had come to expect a quiet rural life set against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
The job of liaison involved responding to the complaints of residents about dust kicked up by trucks, strange smells emanating from well pads and bigger problems such as water contamination.
Jordan reviewed permit requests drillers had submitted to the state and represented the county in oil and gas matters. Settling into the job, she was quickly thrust into debates about worker shortages and "man camps" to house rig workers.
Navigating these conflicts is made all the more difficult because of conflicting property rights. Oil and gas companies often acquire the rights to oil and gas located under land they don't own. State law puts the owner of those "sub-surface rights" above those of the landowner, or "surface owner." So a company can drill even if the landowner doesn't want it to. Even if they do reach agreement, the landowner might not be sharing in the profits from the gas. Some people have found rigs and waste pits next to their idyllic mountain retreats.
Bouncing around the gas patch here in her pickup truck with a mountain bike strapped into the flatbed, Jordan said neutrality meant going into every situation with an open mind. But, she says, it didn't mean staying quiet when she saw something go wrong.
"Nine times out of 10 it would work well," Jordan said. "Usually, I would be able to find the source of the odor or the dust. I would contact someone, and usually they could fix it."
Her personnel reviews show that she was praised for her knowledge and hard work. But they also said she needed to improve her relationship with the drilling companies.
"Judy has done a very good job of addressing complex issues related to oil and gas operations in the county," Green wrote in a November 2009 appraisal. "Judy should strive to enhance her relationship with the industry."
Green acknowledged the difficulty in navigating disputes, as have people in industry.
"Anyone in that role would have a tough job," Encana's Hock said. "It's like being a referee. You're not there to make friends."
Jordan traces her troubles back to 2008. In a meeting, she said that the pits the industry uses for fracking fluid, flowback and drill cuttings should be lined so the toxins in them can't leach down into groundwater. She went back to her experience working for DuPont. There should be a "level playing field," she said, so that companies that didn't line their pits wouldn't have an advantage over the ones that did.
"The same molecule of benzene in a downtown Denver leaking underground storage tank has the same impact on humans out here in the middle of Garfield County," Jordan said. "Four or five industry guys were harassing me about that viewpoint. That's the first time I can remember industry reacting badly to me."
Prices fall, tensions rise
By September 2009, the surge in drilling was slowing down. Prices were falling as excitement grew about an abundance of shale gas in Pennsylvania and other Northeastern states. The number of rigs operating in the county had fallen to about 12 from 74 a year earlier.
In the middle of that month, Jordan and an Encana vice president, Don McClure, served on a panel discussing the future of oil and gas in front of Glenwood Springs Realtors.
Recollections differ on what was said. But when McClure called the county manager at home two weeks later, he accused Jordan of making the case for a congressional proposal -- despised by industry -- to increase federal regulation of fracturing. He also said she criticized Encana for the seep in West Divide Creek.
"From Don McClure's perspective [her remarks] appeared to himself and the audience to be an orchestrated approach to promote the fracing resolution," the county manager wrote.
Jordan said she wasn't advocating the legislation. She said she was actually trying to explain why concerns about toxic chemicals in fracturing fluid were overblown. Where things might have gotten confusing, she said, is that she was trying to explain that those toxins, such as benzene, are naturally part of the "hydrocarbons" that drillers are bringing to the surface.
Whatever was said, her remarks didn't sit well with McClure. Two weeks letter, the county manager confronted her with a memo he'd written about McClure's call to his home.
"Read this," he said.
"He and others in the industry feel that the oil and gas office has not established an effective rapport with the companies and that it is therefore difficult to exchange information, discuss issues and air differences," Green wrote.
Green asked her to attend the monthly meeting of the drilling companies' local representatives, and she did. The industry representatives would later say the discussion was "productive." But they also put their grievances about Jordan in writing.
"We have been disturbed about a perceived partiality based on past comments to the press and at certain public meetings," said the letter, from Encana, Williams and five other drillers.
After that, said Ludlam of the local drillers group, the criticism seemed to die down.
"Things were significantly better," Ludlam said. "The industry by and large thought she did a good job."
The letter was written in January 2010, but surfaced the next month at a meeting of the county's board of commissioners. Commissioner Trési Houpt told Jordan, "You have the support of this commission, and the respect."
But 2010 was an election year, and Houpt didn't have the support of the oil and gas industry.
The sole Democrat on the three-member board, Houpt had made her mark by pressing environmental issues and advocating for surface owners and environmental issues. She was an even bigger target for industry because Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter had made her the local government representative on the state commission that oversees oil and gas.
Houpt lost a hard-fought campaign to Republican Tom Jankovsky, manager of a local ski resort, who got 25 percent of the $80,000 he raised for the race from oil and gas, more than any other industry. Jankovsky didn't respond to requests for comment.
Elections have consequences, and the effect of this one was to make the county government more friendly to the companies that drill for oil and gas.
The commissioners canceled a study of the health effects of drilling. And Green, the county manager, announced a reorganization that demoted Jordan. She would remain the oil and gas liaison, but would no longer be considered a department head. Instead, she'd report to the county building and planning director.
In announcing the reshuffle in February, Green noted that oil and gas drilling had decreased in the county.
"We need to do everything we can to encourage existing businesses to succeed and to expand," he wrote. "That includes the oil and gas industry."
Jordan says she'd warned Green that his reorganization was a recipe for conflict. She didn't belong in the planning department, she said. And she and the planning director didn't get along.
One day in early June, he forwarded an email about a regularly scheduled conference. "Please put on your calendar to attend this," he wrote. She'd attended the events as a matter of course for years. Irritated, she fired back: "Why is it you insist on telling me how to do my job?"
It was the beginning of the end.
The next Monday, she was called to a meeting with the planning director. When she arrived, another employee was there as a "witness."
He told her to sit down. She said she'd prefer to stand. He told her he was suspending her for a week because of the email. He demanded the keys to the county car. She asked how she'd get home. He said he'd drive her. She said "Oh, no."
And so she started walking.
She never went back. When the administrative leave ended, she was summoned to a hearing. She opted not to attend. An "at-will" employee, she was dismissed.
Despite the drumbeat of criticism from industry and the ongoing clash with her boss, Jordan had no backup plan. The county has hired a new oil and gas liaison, Kirby Wynn, who had spent 23 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. Jordan has yet to find another job.
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