With a few strokes of his pen on April 16, Governor Jared Polis granted city and county governments in Colorado something they’d never had before: the authority to regulate oil and gas operations within their borders. Now they have to figure out how to use it.
The signing of Senate Bill 181 brought an end to the latest battle between environmental activists and the state’s powerful fossil-fuel industry, but the war is far from over. Alongside critical state-level rulemaking, which will take more than a year to complete, dozens of county commissions and city council chambers across Colorado will again become battlegrounds as the two sides try to pull local lawmakers in opposite directions.
Some of these governments had long clamored for the land-use powers that SB 181 finally grants them, and celebrated the bill’s passage; others, fearing its impact on the industry, passed resolutions opposing it. Here’s how some of the communities most impacted by Colorado’s oil and gas boom are wading into this new era of drilling policy:
While there are dozens of old, mostly abandoned old wells scattered across the eastern half of Boulder County, the area has been largely spared from the modern, heavy-industrial fracking operations that have encroached upon communities to the north and east over the last fifteen years. One big, early question in Colorado's new era of local control is whether it will stay that way.
In 2017, Denver-based Crestone Peak Resources filed a state application for what would be by far the county's largest-ever fracking project, a proposal that could see up to 140 wells drilled at three sites along County Road 52 east of Gunbarrel. Crestone's plan has been tied up in regulatory proceedings since then, and the company and Boulder County have sued each other in court, too — but with the county's authority over the project now significantly strengthened by the new law, the years-long saga could be heading toward a conclusion.
Last week, Boulder County became the eighth local government in Colorado to impose or extend a moratorium on drilling since SB 181's passage, blocking Crestone from applying for county permits for nine months. County commissioners will use that time to draft and enact a new set of local regulations, and both environmental activists and the industry will be watching closely; just how far liberal Boulder County is willing to go to oppose projects like Crestone's will set the bar for fracking opponents in other jurisdictions along the Front Range.
Wedged squarely between the Weld County oil patch and Denver city limits, Adams County is home to some of the most dramatic clashes between drilling and residential development that the state has seen in the last ten years. Adams County Commissioners voted unanimously to impose a moratorium on new oil and gas development just after SB 181’s introduction, and county staff are currently drafting a new set of regulations.
They’ll present draft rules at a public study session on July 16, after which several public hearings will be held while the regulations are revised and finalized. The county’s moratorium will expire on September 20.
Over 90 percent of oil and gas production in Colorado takes place in rural Weld County, which stretches from the northern outskirts of the Denver metro area all the way to the Wyoming border. The county’s opposition to SB 181 was singularly fierce — Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer called it an “extreme, far-left” bill in hearings at the Capitol — and its actions following its passage have accordingly been one-of-a-kind.
Kirkmeyer and her fellow Weld County commissioners are in the process of exercising so-called 1041 powers under the new law, creating a local department to regulate oil and gas operations within unincorporated areas of the county. Advocates for the industry argue that this new department could bypass state regulation altogether, while legal experts and Polis’s office have thrown cold water on the idea; it’s one of several components of the new law that eventually may have to be tested in court.
Led by Denver-based Extraction Oil & Gas, drillers have proposed over 200 new oil and gas wells across eight different sites in Commerce City, in and around fast-growing residential developments and just a few miles from heavily polluted low-income neighborhoods in north Denver. Earlier this year, the city created a nine-member focus group to provide feedback on any potential changes, which wrapped up its work last month.
But unlike other communities, Commerce City hasn’t imposed a moratorium, and activists view its city council as largely industry-friendly. City staff are currently drafting amendments to the Land Development Code, which could be presented to councilmembers by September.
For skeptical activists worried that little has changed in the post-SB 181 era, developments in Aurora could be an ominous sign. City council has rebuffed calls for a moratorium, and in June, members voted 6-4 to approve a massive new project by oil and gas giant ConocoPhillips, which could see over 300 new wells drilled at 45 new sites scattered across Aurora’s eastern edge. The future of oil and gas development in the quickly growing city could become a major flashpoint in Aurora’s municipal elections later this year.
A small suburb on the border of Boulder and Weld Counties, Erie has been home to some of the Front Range fracking boom’s most controversial projects, several high-profile spills and a large number of residential complaints filed with state regulators. Last month, Erie’s Board of Trustees extended an existing moratorium until January 2020, and the city expects to formally begin the process of adopting new regulations in August.
The Broomfield City Council unanimously approved a six-month moratorium in May, and is currently drafting new regulations. In a presentation to councilmembers last month, city staff reported that they “currently anticipate bringing the first draft of regulations to council in mid-July.”
Following SB 181’s passage, the Lafayette City Council approved a six-month extension to the city’s current moratorium in order “to allow time for Council to carefully consider, and potentially enact, new regulations.”
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