Local drilling rules

T he onset of gas and oil exploration in a community can have dramatic repercussions – good and less so – for property owners, local coffers, wildlife, air quality and other common public goods. To prepare for and respond to that drilling activity, then, communities need adequate flexibility and time to consider the range of impacts and how they can be addressed. La Plata County has been a leader in calling for and demonstrating that local guidance and other counties and cities ought to enjoy the same flexibility.

Under a measure in the Colorado Legislature proposed by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, cities and counties that seek to impose their own regulations — namely moratoriums — on drilling would have severance-tax funds withheld. The bill sends the wrong message for the wrong reasons.

The statewide rules that govern when and how gas drilling occurs provide a good framework for both the industry and communities to use in guiding energy development. There are details at the community level, though, that should be considered and addressed there. Counties and municipalities must be afforded the right to address the particularities of gas and oil activity in their own backyards.

Sonnenburg’s punitive tone overlooks the importance of that flexibility. “If you put a moratorium on oil and gas and say, ‘Look, we don’t want you here,’ then you don’t get the oil and gas revenue,” Sonnenburg said. Such a statement – and the philosophy it reflects – is one that puts energy development above all other interests in the equation. The reality is far more complex, and cities and counties must have the time and jurisdictional empowerment to ensure that those complexities are adequately addressed. With significant natural gas development facing such growing Front Range communities as Longmont and Boulder County, municipal and county leaders have imposed drilling moratoriums so as to consider the impacts that the development is likely to bring – and address them proactively. The state should not seek to punish these local entities for attempting to shape their communities’ future, nor should the state be empowered to strip localities and counties of their governing abilities.

Instead, the state should work with cities and counties to clarify protocol and jurisdiction when it comes to energy development. La Plata County has established a healthy working relationship with state regulators, and that interplay between jurisdictions should be encouraged by the Legislature – not condemned.

While the city of Durango has not had to incorporate gas development into its planning, the notion of drilling within city limits is certainly something the city would be warranted in wanting to consider carefully. Balancing the high-density residential and commercial activities that cities comprise against gas and oil development requires individualized attention at the local level. Cities and counties attempting to strike that balance need the tools to do so.

Sonnenburg’s measure is not winning much support among his colleagues, and it is likely that it will not make it out of the House Agriculture Committee where it will have a hearing today. That is the best outcome for House Bill 1356. Instead of punishing local governments that are attempting to juggle potentially conflicting pressures on their communities, lawmakers would better serve their constituents by seeking ways by which the state and those communities can work together to incorporate gas and oil development appropriately. Doing so, as Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, said, can require a go-slow approach, “There were times as a county commissioner that we needed a little extra time, and I can understand that,” Brown said. Those who take such time should not be punished.

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