What Colorado’s oil and gas task force must decide

 

Oil and gas activity and residential real estate are in close proximity east of I-25 in northern Colorado. Photo/Allen Best

Oil and gas activity and residential real estate are in close proximity east of I-25 in northern Colorado.
Photo/Allen Best

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.Drilling rig

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.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
This entry was posted in Boulder, Colorado, Energy, Mountain towns and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to What Colorado’s oil and gas task force must decide

  1. pete says:

    Elise Jones is the former director of he CO Enviro Coalition not Environment Colorado. Good article.

  2. Oily Residue says:

    The commission has one task: to mitigate any obstacle that stands in between oil and gas interests and drilling wherever they want. Communities have no say in the matter and cannot ban any effort, in affect must cede all their rights and be subjected to a reduced state of health via degraded environmental conditions from oil & gas production toxins.

  3. Mike Chiropolos says:

    Good piece but here’s the rub: a rising tide of reasonable protections lifts all boats — or protects all citizens near drilling activity. Where is the drilling in Colorado? If the Task Force focuses only on allowing opt-in cities and counties (like Boulder, Broomfield, Fort Collins, Louisville, Pitkin, La Plata) to raise the bar, how far will that go to addressing the underlying issue: concerns about drilling impacts to real people and places?

    In 2014 through August, 725 new drilling permits were issued for Garfield County and 1400 for Weld County. The two account for 74.8% of all permits this year in the state.

    In 2013, 82.9% of permits in the state were in Garfield and Weld (3,338 total permits in these two counties).

    Elise Jones ably represents Boulder County as Commissioner. Under the current moratorium, 0 (zero) permits have been issued in Boulder county in 2014; and the same number in 2013. The 22 Boulder County permits issued in 2012 were 0.5% of total drilling.

    The source of the statistics is COGCC’s September 2014 Staff Report at page 20, posted at http://cogcc.state.co.us/

    What’s the takeaway? Weld County is enormously friendly to drillers, and generally opposes any and all improvements to state regulations — including many tried and true reforms in recent years that industry itself now lauds as cost-effective, responsible, the right thing to do, and good for business. Garfield also leans industry-friendly and laissez-faire when it comes to upping state-level protections, although absent the same zeal as Weld — which went so far as to make noises about seceding from the state and founding some kind of Eastern Plains republic/state last year.

    All told, a fair guess is that 90% of drilling permits statewide are issued in counties and local jurisdictions content with the state rules being the ceiling, as opposed to the floor — when it comes to environmental and public health protections. So if the Task Force only empowers local government to increase its regulatory authority, it would be ignoring approximately 90% of all drilling in the state — and associated impacts to families, communities, land, air, water and wildlife.

    Drill a little deeper. Are 90% of citizens content with existing setbacks, the inability of local government to protect their constituents, and Hickenlooper’s support of industry in the fracking wars? No way. If that were the case, nobody would have been worried about ballot initiatives intended to empower local communities and citizens concerned with the impacts of the ever-expanding fracking footprint in the state. The math doesn’t add up.

    So the Task Force needs to look at increasing protections statewide, in addition to more tailored policies to expand the regulatory authority of local government on zoning and other matters. Either that, or fracking is back to the ballot in future years. As it surely will be if the Task Force comes to naught, like now largely forgotten Local Government Oil and Gas Task Force that preceded it. (Full name: Task Force on Cooperative Strategies Regarding State and Local Regulation of Oil & Gas Development). How many following the issue today even recall Hickenlooper’s first Task Force, when the “Colorado Way” achieved next to nothing?

    Current Task Force members will need to do better than the 2012 effort, which concluded: “The Task Force does not make recommendations for new laws, but instead recommends a collaborative process through which issues can be resolved without litigation or new legislation.” That won’t cut it 2014. Not even close.

  4. allen.best says:

    Very interesting points, Mike. You’ve certainly dogged this issue much more closely than I have since we first met in, I believe, 2008. I look forward to your continuing thoughts. Allen

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