Adams County Ushers in the "Local Control" Era With New Oil and Gas Rules

Chase Woodruff
Four months after lawmakers at the State Capitol passed a landmark energy bill, Colorado’s new, more localized era of oil and gas regulation has officially begun.

The Adams County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously today, September 3, to adopt a sweeping series of amendments to the county’s oil and gas regulations. It’s the first major new set of rules adopted by a local government since the passage of Senate Bill 181, the legislative overhaul that granted cities and counties expanded land-use authority to regulate drilling operations, earlier this year.

Industry supporters and environmental activists testified before the board of commissioners during a lengthy public-comment period, as both sought to set the tone for the regulatory battles that are likely to play out in a dozen or more local jurisdictions in the coming months and years. Adams County lies between traditional oil- and gas-producing rural areas to the north and denser, more liberal communities to the south and west, putting it at the center of the debate over the future of oil and gas drilling along the Front Range — both geographically and ideologically.

“Adams County is not Boulder County,” said Tamara Pierce, a resident who spoke in opposition to the proposed regulations. “We support the oil and gas industry and don’t resort to blanket bans like they do. We’re also not Weld County. Adams County is in the middle.”

Adams County imposed a six-month moratorium on new oil and gas permitting in March, shortly after SB 181 was introduced by Democrats at the Capitol, and county staff met with residents, operators, industry groups and other stakeholders as they drafted the new regulations this summer. The county's moratorium is set to expire later this month, following commissioners’ adoption of the new regulations on Tuesday.

“I think in Adams County, we take pride in being able to find commonsense solutions, and I think that’s what we’re doing today,” Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said prior to the board’s vote. “We’re establishing significant improvements to protect health, safety and welfare while also showing flexibility in areas where we saw a need for more work to be done.”

The county’s new regulations prohibit drilling in areas that are zoned for residential development, and will require all new drilling projects to be at least 1,000 feet away from homes, schools and other high-occupancy buildings. That’s a stricter requirement than currently exists in state regulations, which only mandate a 500-foot setback from single-family residences — but significantly less than the comprehensive 2,500-foot buffer that environmental activists unsuccessfully asked Colorado voters to approve in last year’s Proposition 112, and several residents asked commissioners to lengthen the proposed setback.

“My family lives within the proximity of the Antelope Pad, the Harlow Pad and the Jacobson Pad," said Commerce City resident Judy Doris, referring to several large fracking sites in the area. "All of these pads are within a residential area, near homes, businesses, recreation centers and schools. A 1,500-foot setback would help cushion any adverse effects that could happen at these sites."

In addition to zoning and setback provisions, the new Adams County rules include a wide range of requirements aimed at minimizing health and environmental impacts from oil and gas operations, including air-quality controls, noise mitigation, insurance mandates and a county-level inspection and enforcement system.

These regulations will apply to several proposed fracking projects in and around communities in north metro Denver. At least a half-dozen speakers at Tuesday's public hearing were representatives of Great Western Oil and Gas Co., a Denver-based operator that plans to drill up to 142 new wells at four different sites just north of Thornton.

Industry groups spoke in opposition to the new rules, arguing that they violate a provision in SB 181 that requires local regulations to be "necessary and reasonable." That language was added late in the legislative process at the urging of industry lobbyists, and exactly what it means isn't clear.

"The words 'necessary and reasonable' are not ornamental," Julia Rhine, an attorney with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and outside counsel to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said during the public-comment period. "Although they're not defined, that doesn't change the fact that they function as significant guardrails on a local government's authority."

Environmental activists accused the industry of strong-arming the board by implicitly threatening a lawsuit, and pointed to comments by bill sponsors that the "necessary and reasonable" standard isn't intended to prevent local governments from employing the "precautionary principle."

"This is a powerful tool in your toolbox," said Anne Lee Foster, an activist with anti-fracking group Colorado Rising. "It's your responsibility to make sure that the burden is being put on the industry to prove that they are not adversely affecting public health, safety, welfare, the environment and the climate."

The code amendments passed Tuesday are unlikely to be the last oil and gas regulations adopted by Adams County in the wake of SB 181's passage. As state regulators overhaul rules pertaining to the "cumulative impacts" of oil and gas operations on air quality and other public-health issues, county staff and commissioners said Tuesday that they will likely follow suit.

“The people who are living in these areas where they have two, three, four hundred wells around them have every right to ask us and the state to look at cumulative impacts,” said O’Dorisio. “I wish we could have done that here, but this board has listened to the staff and our stakeholders saying that we need additional work to be done on that.”

Update, 9/4: A previous version of this article stated that Adams County's new regulations will apply to existing projects. In fact, the rules apply only to new oil and gas facilities proposed after their adoption.