Boulder County Commissioners’ Multi-Pronged Approach
There is a palpable tension along the Northern Front Range between communities like Boulder County – which does not want high intensity oil and gas development near homes and schools or impacting natural resources like our water, air and land – and the oil and gas industry which is regulated at the state level and does not have to comply with most local attempts at restricting their operations.
For more than five years, Boulder County has been seeking more local regulatory authority over oil and gas development. Since 2012, we were able to maintain a time-out in accepting new drilling applications while we investigated the potential health and environmental hazards of oil and gas development and put in place the strongest local land use regulations in the State of Colorado. By necessity of complying with state law, our timeout ended on May 1.
Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that local bans and lengthy moratorium are not permitted under state law. In a lawsuit filed in district court against Boulder County in February, the state and the oil and gas industry sued us for our latest temporary moratorium on new oil and gas permitting, and the court ruled in favor of the state and industry.
Our county attorney’s office summed it up this way: “The court order shows that the county commissioners had no other course of action to take when they announced this week that they would not extend the moratorium. As we’ve seen from prior cases, it is always an uphill battle when local governments are fighting against the oil and gas industry. The commissioners have done all they can as allowed by law on the moratorium front.”
While some members of the public continue to call for an outright ban on fracking in Boulder County, a ban is not a viable option for us while current state laws are in place. Colorado counties and cities have their hands tied by the state in prohibiting the highly industrial use of oil and gas development near residential areas. We are given too limited a regulatory role as compared to other similar uses, which is why it is so important for the county and our residents to continue to push the state for adequate local authority.
The land use regulations that we adopted in March are the strongest, most protective regulations of any city or county in Colorado, which is not to say they are as strong as many would like, but they are the strongest we could make them as allowed by current law. We share the community’s concerns about the impacts of drilling and welcome all strategic ideas about how we can better protect the environment and public health in Boulder County in the face of the Colorado Supreme Court’s ruling that bans and long term moratoriums aren’t legal.
On April 25, we laid the groundwork on how we are taking steps to use every tool available to us, short of an outright ban, to help us address the detrimental impacts to our air, water, and quality of life from oil and gas development in Boulder County. Since the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that local governments like Boulder County can’t use bans or long-term moratoriums to protect their residents and environment from the impacts of oil & gas drilling, we are doing (or have done) this list of 17 things instead:
- Passed the strongest local oil & gas regulations allowed under law
- Launch a Fossil Free Pilot to help homes and businesses reduce their reliance on fossil fuels
- Undertake a carbon sequestration pilot project to determine the feasibility of sequestering additional carbon on county lands
- Help launch a new Clean Energy Credit Union to finance solar and energy efficiency projects
- Organized Colorado Communities for Climate Action, a coalition of 14 cities and counties, who advocate for climate-friendly bills at the state legislature
- Continue regular inspections of all oil & gas wells in Boulder County to detect leaks and ensure they’re repaired
- Established an air monitoring station to measure baseline air quality and see how regional oil & gas drilling affects our air
- Launch a new monitoring program to test water wells to measure baseline quality and detect any contamination
- Continue to lobby at the legislature for needed changes in state law
- File an amicus brief to support the legal challenge to Amendment 71, which makes it harder to qualify and pass a citizen ballot initiative
- Support ballot initiatives on local control over oil and gas in 2018
- Advocate for the Air Quality Control Commission to strengthen rules on leak detection & repair
- Push the COGCC to follow through on adopting a new rule limiting C scale noise and vibrations during well drilling and initiate other needed rulemakings
- Pursue a lawsuit to hold industry accountable for the hazards and costs of climate change
- File an amicus brief to support the Martinez lawsuit
- Support other local lawsuits (e.g., Triple Creek, Weld Air and Water) with amicus briefs
- Called on all oil & gas operators in Boulder County, in the wake of the Firestone tragedy, to shut down their vertical wells until they can guarantee there are no safety risks
The problem Boulder County is facing is that we don’t have the full authority to decide our destiny on the oil and gas issue – to decide what’s best for our county, for our environment, for our public’s health, or for our local economy. We have some authority, which we have used to write the strongest possible regulations we could, but it’s not all the authority we want or need to ensure the full protection of our residents and our world class environment.
Industry is still debating whether or not to sue us over the regulations we passed because, per their repeated testimony at our numerous public hearings over the last nine months, they think we exceeded our authority. If you take the time to read our 50-pages of regulations (and we recommend that everyone do so: http://bit.ly/BoCoOGregs), you’ll quickly see they do the opposite of expediting drilling permits.
The county’s real obstacle with state preemption challenges to local control is state statute, so we are encouraging our constituents to work with us to change state law. While our current political climate doesn’t support this, sustained public advocacy directed at Colorado state rulemakers can, and hopefully will, change our political landscape to make it more favorable to local control and clean energy policy change. We must continue to pursue and advocate for better legislation on oil and gas, knowing that this is a multi-year strategy.
Last week, in response to the deadly explosion in Firestone, we called on all oil and gas operators in Boulder County to shut down their vertical wells, just as Anadarko had, until they could assure residents that those wells did not pose similar safety risks in Boulder County. We said that if Anadarko Petroleum thinks there’s reason to close down its vertical wells, then we think it is in the best interest of the public for all operators to follow suit and shut down their vertical wells. This week, we learned that the explosion was indeed caused by gas that entered the basement through a cut flow line from an abandoned gas well near the home.
The tragic home explosion in Firestone is a poignant example of how important it is that we continue to work to protect the health and safety of residents on all fronts available to us, even if the moratorium option is not an available tool from a legal standpoint.
It is also important that Boulder County continue its robust monitoring program, participating in public health studies, helping homeowners and businesses reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and working with other communities statewide.
As your Board of County Commissioners, we pledge to continue working to do all we can to protect this county and its residents from the impacts of oil and gas development and to forge a cleaner energy future for us all. We urge everyone to stay engaged with us on this issue and continue sending us your good ideas on what else we should be doing. This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
We are all in this together, sharing the common goal of working towards what’s best for Boulder County. As your Board of County Commissioners, we pledge to continue to do all that we can to protect this county and its residents from the impacts of oil and gas development and to forge ahead with a cleaner energy future for us all.
Visit our Oil & Gas Development page for more details and background about our history with this issue.