Why local governments can say no to porn shops but not to drilling rigs
by Allen Best
Plenty of people turned out on Thursday afternoon to tell Colorado’s Oil and Gas Task Force that everything is just fine the way it is. “It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it,” said one speaker.
Staying put isn’t an option for the task force. Gov. John Hickenlooper was compelled to appoint the 21-member task force as part of a broad compromise that averted dueling constitutional amendments before voters in the general election. If the task force next year yields a recommendation that freezes what now exists, it will rightly be considered a failure.
In the hour of testimony I heard at the tale-end of the task force’s first meeting, speaker after speaker went to the microphone to testify that everything now is hunky-dory. Oil and gas drilling delivers plenty of high-paying jobs in Colorado and low-cost energy.
“I’m concerned that somebody is trying to kill the golden goose,” said one speaker, from Arapahoe County. “Go easy on that golden goose,” she said as she left the lectern.
The industry had marshaled its forces, drawing in elected officials from the county commissions from Elbert and Arapahoe counties, plus union leaders and others. A woman who said she represented people of color said that they have not all emerged from the recession, suggesting that anything that impedes the extraction of fossil fuels further burdens them with higher energy costs.
Drawing more to the middle was Tamra Ward, chief executive of Colorado Concern, a business advocacy group. “Creating these rules of the oil and gas industry does not mean making a choice between the economy and the environment,” she said. “We can do both.”
Several spoke about the private property rights of mineral estates.
Others spoke to the worries about health impacts. One speaker called for a requirement that only “green” fluids be used for hydraulic fracturing. Others fretted about endocrine disruption. Phil Doe, an activist in water matters, pointed out that municipalities representing more than 200,000 people along the northern Front Range have sought to exclude drilling.
To my ears, the most interesting points were made by Elise Jones, a Boulder County commissioner and former leader of the Colorado Environment Coalition. Local governments, she said, should be able to go beyond the protections afforded by the state and adopt protections of their own choosing.
“We do have some authority, but it’s not enough,” she said.
She then pointed to other areas in which state government has chosen to allow greater local authority. Counties and towns, can, for example, exclude everything from pornography to marijuana sales. In the case of oil and gas, however, state government wants to reserve authority almost exclusively.
“Colorado is a leader in so many ways in this issue,” she went on to say. But in cases of local governments having authority over drilling, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and others cede much more governance to town and counties.
That’s the issue in a nutshell—and the compromise that the task force members will have to mull.
Further muddling the issue is the incomplete scientific evidence about the effects of of exposure to oil and gas drilling. On the same day as the task force hearing, several experts at the Colorado State University Natural Gas Symposium had spoken to the uncertainties about health impacts. Mike Van Dyke, chief of the Environmental Epidemiology, Occupational Health, and Toxicology Section at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, had described the great difficulty in getting certainty in health impacts of an industry that is, by its nature, transient.
Task force members certainly have plenty of issues to sort through when they meet in Durango, then Rifle and again in Denver during coming months. In the past, I have argued for local energy production for local energy consumption. It creates a certain reality in our conversation, I have argued, and I believe that.
But as Jones pointed out, it’s a good question why local governments can say no to pornography and marijuana but they can’t say no to oil and gas drilling across from schoolyards.
The original posting misidentified the environmental organization previously directed by Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. The error has been corrected.