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Colorado new oil and gas rules leave few satisfied

Scope of local control, fracking has both sides unsettled

DENVER – State oil and gas regulators on Monday concluded a monumental rule-making process stemming from concerns over local control of fracking.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission left several sides of the debate – including environmental and industry interests – dissatisfied with certain results, suggesting that the process struck a compromise.

The rule-making process started in September 2014 after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, convened a task force to address the local-control issue. The task force itself was viewed as a compromise, proposed in an effort to avoid ballot questions aimed at giving local governments the authority to ban hydraulic fracturing.

The local-control issue remains unsettled in Colorado, with the Colorado Supreme Court weighing whether local governments have the power to enact stricter rules and regulations than those of the state.

Under the rule-making that concluded Monday, operators are required to consult and register with local governments when building large facilities.

Perhaps the biggest issue was defining a large-scale facility. The definition for large facilities was connected to “urban mitigation areas,” which include areas within 1,000 feet of at least 22 homes, a school or a hospital.

Commissioners set the trigger for operators to consult with local governments in urban mitigation areas at eight new wells, or 4,000 new or existing storage barrels, not including water storage. The motion passed on a 5-4 vote.

No operations in La Plata County would fall under the definition, according to the La Plata County Energy Council. The county has only two urban mitigation areas, which were built after natural gas wells were drilled.

Some counties, including La Plata, pushed for counties to be included in the mandate to register with local governments, as opposed to just requiring registration with towns and cities. The COGCC ultimately included counties in the registration process.

But La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, a Democrat, who co-chaired the governor’s task force, said counties are left with a limited voice.

“It doesn’t require companies to provide counties with the same information they will be required to provide municipalities,” Lachelt said. “This is an erosion of local control.”

Having dedicated six months to the task force, Lachelt was disappointed with the end result. She said the commission fell short of providing better protections for communities.

“This process did not achieve those goals,” Lachelt said. “We have much work to do in Colorado to protect communities and local control.”

Not all of La Plata’s three county commissioners, however, are concerned. Republican Brad Blake believes counties have had and continue to have a strong voice.

“I’m not thrilled with the outcome, or sad with the outcome, because I think we still have the authority to look into these issues,” Blake said.

He and the La Plata County Energy Council were disappointed that the county joined an alliance of several Front Range governments – led by Boulder – in calling for stricter rules. They wanted La Plata to represent its own interests.

“La Plata entered into rule making with counties that they have absolutely nothing in common with,” said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council.

She also pointed out that there are existing memorandums of understanding with operators and a quarterly notification process in La Plata County.

“La Plata County operators have been the leaders in sharing information and participating in local land-use codes and complying with COGCC regulations for decades,” Zeller said.

Meanwhile, anti-fracking interests have proposed a slew of ballot proposals for this year, including banning fracking altogether and mandating larger setbacks of wells.

“It’s not just the wells or the drilling, or the noise and lights and traffic 24 hours a day,” said Shawndra Barry, with the newly-formed League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans. “It is being disenfranchised with no due process.”

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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