Grant Black abruptly steps down as Wyoming oil and gas supervisor

2014-03-31T11:44:00Z 2014-03-31T23:51:15Z Grant Black abruptly steps down as Wyoming oil and gas supervisorBy BENJAMIN STORROW Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
March 31, 2014 11:44 am  • 

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously Monday to accept the resignation of State Oil and Gas Supervisor Grant Black, who had been in the role less than a year.

Black's resignation will be effective April 1. The commission, made up of Gov. Matt Mead and four other state officials, voted 5-0 to install Mark Watson as interim supervisor. Watson is a petroleum engineer for the WOGCC and a former candidate for the supervisor job.

The decision means the state agency responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry is once again without a permanent leader. Black, a former Arkansas regulator and lobbyist for Samson Resource Co., was the second supervisor in as many years. His predecessor, Tom Doll, resigned amid controversy in late 2012. Black assumed the role in May.

His decision to step down also comes as the commission is stepping up efforts to close wells abandoned after the collapse of the coal-bed methane industry and is considering changes to the rules governing flaring, setbacks and bonding on wells.

The commission convened an executive session 9 a.m. Monday and emerged almost two hours later to announce Black's resignation. The reason for his resignation was not given.

Bridget Hill, oil and gas commission chair, said she could not discuss the matter, as it was a personnel issue.

"We wish him well with everything he does from here on out and thank him for his service during his time here," she said.

Mead issued a statement thanking Black. The governor said the commission would continue work on implementing a new baseline testing rule, completing an investigation into the contamination of Pavillion's groundwater and reforming the rules surrounding oil and gas production, among other initiatives.

"We are confident the staff at the commission will advance these projects and they will remain on schedule," Mead said. "I thank Mark for his willingness to step forward and lead the commission at this time.”

Concerns about approach

Black's tenure was rocky at times. At a commission meeting in February, he informed the board of his plans to reform the state's rules governing flaring, setbacks and bonds paid by operators on oil and gas wells.

He said his plan was to hold a series of informal meetings with stakeholders and, based on those conversations, have the commission draft a series of proposed rules. The draft rules would then proceeded through the formal rule-making process.

Commissioners were unenthusiastic about the approach, saying they were particularly concerned about holding informal meetings.

“I’m having a little bit of a concern here, as to exactly how you’re going to structure this initial input you’re going to receive from folks, and make sure it’s inclusive and not seen that it’s an exclusive club or group of people that are the ones that are getting input and trying to steer the rule-making," Commissioner Tom Drean told Black, in comments reported by the Casper Journal. "To me that goes against the spirit of it being an open process where everyone has an opportunity to present certain comments on an equal basis."

Drean's concerns were echoed by other members of the commission.

Little to say

Hours after tendering his resignation on Monday, Black appeared at a luncheon for the Rotary Club of Casper, where he was the scheduled speaker.

He ate his meal on the sidelines of the luncheon. In his 10-minute presentation, he didn't mention his employment status, speaking instead about fracking and the state's efforts to plug abandoned coal-bed methane wells. After his speech he took questions, but none mentioned his resignation.

A few attendees known for their ties to the oil and gas industry were seen quietly speaking to Black before the speech. Others in attendance shook Black’s hand afterward and thanked him for his speech.

He spoke briefly to the Star-Tribune before departing, saying, “I had a discussion with the commissioners and the governor. I am resigning my position with the oil and gas commission effective as of tomorrow.”

He declined to elaborate and left before doing any TV interviews.

Watson takes over

Watson was one of four announced finalists for the supervisor's post last year. He is the commission's principal petroleum engineer and has worked for the agency for more than 30 years.

Commissioner Mark Doelger said in an interview he expects Watson will apply for the permanent supervisor's job when the commission begins the search. He said Watson is well-suited to lead the commission through the transition phase.

"There is not much of a learning curve for him, given he’s been there for 30 years and has a petroleum engineering degree from [the University of Wyoming]," he said. "I'm optimistic."

When Watson previously applied for the supervisor's job, there was a requirement that the applicant be a registered petroleum engineer or petroleum geologist, Doelger said. The Legislature changed the provision in 2013. Now the supervisor must have a degree in either of those subjects and 10 years of related work experience.

"Mark and other applicants I do not think were registered. That was a problem in the past, but it is not a problem now," Doelger said. "Having that as a requirement can knock out some very qualified folks."

Hill, the commission chair, said she expects the board to begin a search promptly. The commission's next meeting is April 8.

A Wednesday meeting in Gillette about the state's effort to plug orphaned wells in the Powder River Basin is still on, commission staff said. An April 15 meeting in Casper on the proposed rule changes for flaring, setbacks and bonds will also go forward.

Star Tribune staff writer Kyle Roerink contributed to this story.

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