By Mark Jaffe, July 8, 2013
The battle – or maybe it’s a tug-of-war – between Colorado local officials and Gov. John Hickenlooper over oil and gas drilling has entered a new stage. In June, 100 current and former elected municipal and county officials sent the governor a letter urging a more collaborative approach among the various levels of government. It was an olive branch, but in talking to some elected officials it was also a warning. “We wanted to make a statement after the legislative session, in which most bills to regulate oil and gas activities were defeated,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. “We want to say to the governor, ‘We’re not finished.’” La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the message is: “We are not going away between now and the next legislative session in January.” There has been a running skirmish between the Hickenlooper administration and environmentalists and some local officials over drilling for more than a year. Among the Front Range officials signing on to the letter were representatives of Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Golden Westminster, Arvada, Boulder, Lafayette, Longmont, Loveland, Erie, Louisville and Arapahoe County. “We would like to work with you in crafting an improved approach to addressing oil and gas development in Colorado,” the letter said. “We are concerned that the State’s positions do not adequately address the growing outcry from our citizens who are concerned about the health and safety of their families, the livability of neighborhoods, and the long-term economic vitality of our communities,” the letter went on. Local officials signing on to the letter say that there remains a big gap between what the state is doing in terms of regulating oil and gas development and what citizens want. “The governor has made statements that he doesn’t want local governments involved in oil and gas,” said La Plata County’s Lachelt. “It feels like a very polarized debate.” Lachelt, who was former executive director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a Durango-based environmental group, said that something like the interim committee on oil and gas that was formed in 1999 to review and revise regulations is needed. “We need some kind of new forum for state and local officials, the industry and the public,” Lachlet said. Hickenlooper has held up the state’s current regulations as among the most comprehensive in the nation and a model for other states. While local officials concede that they are “a good start” they say the regulations don’t go far enough. “We would like to tighten the regulations,” said Fort Collins City Councilman Ross Cunniff. “We want more stringent air quality standards and monitoring, large setbacks from homes for drilling.The state says what we have is adequate. Our citizens don’t agree” The Hickenlooper administration’s insistence that neither county nor municipal governments have the power to directly regulate drilling continues to frustrate public officials. The governor has said that the industry can’t face a welter to different local requires or limitations. When Longmont issued regulations that banned drilling from residential areas the Hickenlooper administration sued. “We can regulate any other industrial activity and keep it out of a residential area,” said Colorado Springs City Councilman Val Snider. “At the local level we need more flexibility on something like setbacks.” “Colorado Springs is a home rule city,” Snider said. “We know we have a local charter … The governor is saying that only goes so far.” Matt Lepore, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said that cities and counties have the power to regulate traffic, safety and some land issues when oil and gas drilling come to town. “Boulder County got very good legal counsel and drafted comprehensive regulations that went up to the line, but didn’t cross it,” he said. “We have no problems with Boulder County’s regulations.” The Boulder draft rules propose a slow phasing in of any drilling, to enable the county to more easily oversee the activity. It offered quicker permitting to operators willing to take actions such as larger setbacks. It also would levy a $38,600 impact fee per well. But on June 18, rather than adopting the regulations the county commission voted place the draft rules on a back burner and to extend a drilling moratorium for 18 months, while more data on health effects of drilling is collected. “Boulder County did all we could do, but let’s be clear it wasn’t all we wanted to do, or our citizens wanted us to do” said Jones. And what of the governor’s response to the letter? “We are carefully reviewing the letter and will respond appropriately. It would be premature to comment before that happens,” Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown said in an email.
By Mark Jaffe, July 8, 2013