Environmental activists are urging a newly appointed board of Colorado oil and gas regulators to increase health and safety protections following the passage of a landmark bill to reform state drilling laws. But this new era of Colorado energy policy has kicked off with familiar results — with state officials rejecting calls to halt or substantially slow fossil-fuel development.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission won't impose a moratorium on permitting while it conducts rule-making required by the newly enacted Senate Bill 181, agency director Jeff Robbins said at a hearing today, May 21.
“Numerous members of the public have asked this commission to immediately put in place a moratorium on any and all new permits until all of the rules have been adopted,” Robbins said as the hearing began. “That, I believe, is contrary to the intent of Senate Bill 181.”
The hearing was the first regularly scheduled COGCC hearing since SB 181 was signed into law last month, and the first under a new commission appointed by Governor Jared Polis to comply with the law's requirements, which altered the commission's makeup to increase representation from health and environmental experts.
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For months, activists have called on Polis’s administration to “pause the permits” while new regulations are developed, and they’ve renewed those demands in the weeks following SB 181’s passage. The new law directs the COGCC to conduct rule-making relating to at least twelve different areas of oil and gas policy, a process that is expected to take well over a year to complete.
“How can they proceed with any permitting at all?” asks Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado. “Whether or not [SB 181] calls for a moratorium, it obligates them to regulate in a manner that protects public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife. How can they continue to move forward with any permitting until that’s been shown?”
Instead of a full moratorium, the COGCC announced last week that it would put a limited number of permits on hold. As required by SB 181, Robbins issued a list of “Objective Criteria” identifying certain permits, including locations within municipalities or within 1,500 feet of an occupied building, that will be subject to additional scrutiny and potentially delayed until rule-making is completed.
The list of criteria means that while many controversial projects in densely populated areas north of Denver are likely to face further hurdles and delays, oil and gas development in other parts of the state, like rural Weld County, aren't likely to be impacted.
“It seems to me that they’re still functioning like it’s business as usual,” Parkin says. “We haven’t seen a significant change.”
Permit applications for more than 400 new drilling locations and over 6,000 individual wells are currently pending before the COGCC. Industry representatives spoke at the hearing to encourage the commission to continue processing and approving those permits in the coming months.
“During the debate over Senate Bill 181 and ensuing weeks, concerns over permits have continued to increase,” Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told commissioners. “We would urge you to please rely on COGCC staff to move permits through that are not problematic.”
Many of those who spoke during the hearing’s two-hour public comment period raised concerns about the impact of oil and gas development on greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change. While SB 181 contains few provisions that directly relate to climate change, it does instruct the COGCC to address the “cumulative impacts” of drilling, and activists plan to press the agency to consider climate effects as rule-making unfolds.
“If they’re prioritizing public health and safety, then they have to be looking at the climate impacts of oil and gas development,” says Parkin.
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Dan Gibbs, who oversees the COGCC as executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, addressed Tuesday’s hearing following the public comment period and acknowledged the commission’s need to consider climate change.
“I think everything that we need to do within the DNR, we need to look at through a lens of climate change,” said Gibbs. “So I appreciate the folks that have brought up those issues.”
But Gibbs also dismissed calls for a pause in permitting, and stressed that SB 181 still directs the COGCC to “allow appropriate oil and gas development to occur.” Roughly 90 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels, and the combustion of oil and gas extracted in Colorado could release more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between now and 2050.
“That’s the tension that they have to figure out,” says Deborah McNamara, a 350 Colorado activist. “And we will be there every step of the way to keep reminding them.”