Colorado’s energy industry has long been a major economic engine in the state. That robust industry means there is plenty happening in business and regulation for companies involved in oil and gas and mining. That provides plenty of work for attorneys, who can find success and recognition for their work by staying on top of changing state laws and technological advancements.
Oil and gas
It has been a landmark year in oil and gas law in Colorado with the passage of Senate Bill 181 in April, which requires the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize public health and the environment in oil and gas development. Attorneys for the energy and natural resources industries are watching closely as the commission begins a months-long rulemaking process under the new law.
Steptoe & Johnson member David Little, recognized on this year’s Best Lawyers list, said clients will need to be educated and adjust to the new rules. But business will go on.
“My experience with the oil and gas companies here in Colorado, and throughout the West, is that they want to do the right thing. They want to protect everyone’s health and safety,” said Little, who works on litigation, contract and regulatory issues related to oil and gas companies.
SB 181 also gives local governments more control in regulating oil and gas development, Little said, adding that different jurisdictions vary in their approach to regulation. For example, Weld County “is trying to be very proactively supportive of oil and gas development,” while Adams County has moved to impose tighter restrictions on the industry, he said.
“I think that it’ll be interesting to see how the government agencies at both the state and local level work together or work separately to redesign the way oil and gas operations are regulated in the state of Colorado,” said Little, who grew up in the state and has been practicing for over 30 years, with the past 15 to 20 focused in part on oil and gas.
Lori Dawkins, managing member at Steptoe & Johnson’s Denver office, also made the Best Lawyers list. She said “there’s some fear” in Colorado about the new legislation, and she has seen the state move toward tighter controls on oil and gas activity, especially compared to neighboring Wyoming, which she said is one of the best states to practice in because it is “very oil and gas friendly.”
“I would say that, at least right now, Colorado is becoming more and more restrictive,” said Dawkins, a West Virginia native who started at the firm in that state in 1995. She moved to Denver in 2013 to start the firm’s office here.
Dawkins, a litigator who does much of her work for midstream pipeline companies, practices in Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. She said oil and gas law offers “a lot of room to be very creative.”
“I think it’s very challenging, and it never really gets dull,” Dawkins said.
Greg Danielson, partner at Davis Graham & Stubbs, said the new oil and gas law has created a “wait and see” situation and uncertainty over future investment.
“Certainly, we see client work slowing down here in Colorado for that reason. And it requires us to be doing more work in Wyoming, Texas, New Mexico and North Dakota,” said Danielson, another Denver attorney on the Best Lawyers list. “We’ve always done some work in those states, but it’s a big part of our practice right now.”
Even with the uncertainty, he doesn’t expect companies to flee the state.
“We have a number of clients that are committed to this state, and as long as no one’s banning actual drilling work, it’s going to continue,” he said.
Danielson said he landed in energy law through “serendipity.” While in law school at the University of Denver, he was looking for work within walking distance of school. A boutique energy firm near campus hired him as a law student and brought him on after he graduated, and he has remained in the energy practice since.
He said when he first started, there were a lot more ups and downs in the oil and gas business, so much so that he was a bankruptcy practitioner for several years.
“Even with the recession, in the last 10 to 15 years, it’s been a lot steadier,” Danielson said, although he said that “the next year will be a challenge” as oil and gas producers in the state face new regulations amid lower oil and gas prices.
“There’s been a definite slowdown in the activity level in terms of larger transactions,” he said.
“On the horizon there’s going to be more bankruptcies, or at least people thinking about it and liquidating, because of the challenges of staying in play in a lower price environment,” Danielson said. “We’ll see how it may shake out. We’ll be in a position to provide services either way.”
Another change has been the growing presence of big national oil and gas firms operating in the state over the past 5 years, which has led DGS to become more competitive in retaining and recruiting associates in its energy practice, according to Danielson.
Technology has also been a driver of change in oil and gas law. Danielson said the advent of horizontal drilling has created challenges and opportunities. Contracts written in the 1960s and 70s assumed that companies would be drilling straight down, but with today’s technology, they can drill down and then over for a miles, he said. While this limits the impact on the surface, drillers might cross multiple properties, leading to different regulatory challenges and the need to bring together more parties when negotiating, he said.
Technological advancements are among the things that keep Laura Beverage’s job interesting. Beverage, counsel at Jackson Kelly’s Denver office, was named “Lawyer of the Year” in Mining Law.
“Mining across the board is very technologically advanced. The general public tends to think it’s not, but it is. So, there are always new innovations to educate myself about to advance the health and safety of miners,” said Beverage, who represents domestic and international mining companies with operations in the U.S.
Beverage’s clients produce everything from coal, gold and copper to stone, sand and gravel. In her practice, she represents clients in workplace safety and health, compliance, regulatory and employment matters and the occasional criminal case related to mining operations.
In the near term, Beverage said she will be following changes within the Mining Safety and Health Administration that have reassigned coal inspectors to certain metal and non-metal inspection and enforcement tasks. She said this has led to some concerns due to the differences in coal and metal mining, but that these should dissipate over the long run with proper training of MSHA personnel.
She said she’ll also be watching to see whether the mining industry adopts new standards for silica dust exposure. OSHA started accepting comments last month on revisions to silica standards, and many expect MSHA to follow suit.
While her clients now span the globe, she said her career in mining law began closer to home.
“I’m from West Virginia and grew up in what was known as coal country,” she said. She started her legal career in 1980 at Jackson Kelly’s Charleston office, and her local ties helped her gain credibility when she began working with coal industry clients.
“It was easier to gain trust because I grew up there and my family was there,” Beverage said.
In 1993, she came to Colorado to open Jackson Kelly’s Denver office, and her practice grew to include metals and non-metals mining.
In addition to the diversity of cases she handles, she likes that the job gets her out of the office. “It’s definitely not a desk job,” she said. Her work has taken her to almost every state and even the Arctic Circle.
“There is never a dull moment.”
— Jessica Folker, [email protected]