When Colorado recently passed landmark legislation that radically changed who gets to regulate oil and gas drilling in the state, environmentalists cheered because it flipped the old model of fostering oil and gas development for one that put the interests of public health, safety and the environment first. But now, the bill has become a “be careful what you wish for” reality for rural Coloradans.
Three of the four legislative sponsors of the bill hail from Boulder County, including Senate leader Steve Fenberg, and House Speaker KC Becker. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law and he resides in Boulder as well. So it’s not surprising that Boulder County interests shaped the bill that gives power to the state’s 64 counties to shape their own oil and gas regulations.
Six months since signing, new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, (COGCC) Director Jeff Robbins is using the letter of the law and some would say — not the spirit of the law — by using 16 interim standards to approve new wells, while official rules are written. Environmentalists are uneasy — none of Robbin’s 16 points are science-based criteria associated with fracking, including regulating harmful gasses and fluids that rush back out the pipe following initial hydraulic fracturing.
For Boulder County, commissioners moved fast to place a moratorium on new oil and gas permits, although it’s clear drilling is all but over in Boulder County. But in gas-drilling friendly-Weld County, commissioners, quickly declared that resource development would proceed as if the new law didn’t exist. Robbins ordered them to back down, but new rules will certainly be lax in Weld. One could argue SB-181 is how Polis protected his home turf while not squelching the oil and gas industry.
In Delta County, the new law seemed to stupefy. At 29 pages, it is long, hard to understand and it’s a wrecking ball that rips up the old script of Colorado oil and gas rules. When Delta County Commissioners read the bill, they realized they were the new chiefs of oil and gas development, and then in what some call a shocking move, they eliminated all existing oil and gas regulations.
You could blame it all on Boulder. The law was written to deal with suburban problems such as setbacks from housing, noise levels from drilling, smells, and other urban and suburban nuisance issues. The bill does not explicitly address rural problems such as danger to irrigation ditches, proximity to agriculture, wildlife and watershed contamination. And crucial setbacks in rural areas relate more to water and wildlife than housing.
Final say will eventually rest with counties, with the state as second-in-command once its regulations are written.
The big question. With counties as final arbiter, can’t they relax state regulations? That issue would most likely end up in court. But if judges defer to the possessor of ultimate authority — the counties, this could be bad news for suburbanites in Weld County who oppose drilling, and even worse news for rural oil and gas opponents in Delta County.
Here’s what’s at stake: In a recent Delta County drilling plan, Gunnison Energy stated that each well would consume over 20 million gallons or 61-acre feet of water. How does a community protect its agriculture without first protecting its water? Yet all of the specifics in the law that are tough on oil and gas relate to suburban communities.
In 31,000-person Delta County, 69 percent of voters are registered Republican, and the county leans decidedly pro-oil and gas. After losing 800 coal-mining jobs from 2014-2016, the Delta County Commission seems desperate to bring back fossil-fuel jobs.
What Natasha Leger, leader of local environmental group, Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC) finds hard to believe, is that “any authority would gladly give up power.” As head of an anti-fracking group, she said that “discarded rules provided crucial county-wide protections,” allowing them to file lawsuits when necessary to protect the environment. For years, this back and forth has kept drilling at bay, which has helped organic agriculture and tourism to flourish.
What some would call an abdication of power, the Delta County Commission disagrees, “CHC used the rules to sue us — with purely political motives.” said Don Suppes, Delta County Commissioner, in an interview Oct. 25.
What Leger and Suppes do agree on is that water is the most important resource Delta County needs to protect. Yet Suppes points out, “we’ve got property owners with mineral rights that we can’t ignore either.” Which pierces the heart of any debate about conservation in Colorado — does the environment deserve the same protections as owners of deeded mineral rights?
For background, compare oil and gas to another fossil fuel: Delta County’s former power-house industry, coal mining. The federal government was a tough regulator.
Ed Marston, former publisher of High Country News and long-time opponent to Delta County oil and gas development, wrote a letter to the Delta County Independent in 2018 saying that Delta County “with its anti-government attitude, does not acknowledge what made the coal industry such a wonderful neighbor: Federal regulation… The hated feds protected the health and lives of the miners and the mine neighbors, and kept the air and water clean. If not for federal regulation, the state highway 133 corridor would be an ugly mess with heaps of waste coal and polluted streams.”
Which begs the question, did Colorado legislatures have to cede a century of hard-fought environmental victories so Boulder County could ban drilling? Boulder has a municipal population of 107,000 and a county population of just 322,000. For contrast, Colorado now has over 5.6 million people, yet its powerful rule makers all claim Boulder as their base.
Delta County Commissioners say they are waiting for SB-181 to be written explicitly by the oil and gas commission before they act. Since the state is no longer the primary regulator and the federal government under President Trump are pro drilling, brace yourselves — it’s every county for itself.
Dave Marston grew up in Delta County and owns commercial property in both Paonia and Hotchkiss. He lives in New York City.