State power play angers town and county lawmakers
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Local government officials from around the state — including Pitkin, Summit and Eagle counties, as well as towns like Basalt, Aspen and the entire Boulder City Council — voiced their opposition to a state lawsuit against the City of Longmont over locally enacted oil and gas drilling regulations.
In their letter, the diverse coalition of county commissioners, mayors, and city council members urged the Governor to rethink his approach and instead work with local governments to protect communities from the adverse impacts of growing oil and gas development.
Saying that a one-size-fits-all approach often fail to adequately mitigate local concerns or address important site-specific or local conditions, they asked Hickenlooper to withdraw the lawsuit and work cooperatively with local communities to develop a regulatory scheme for “potentially damaging and risky industrial activities within our jurisdictions.”
“As representatives of local governments across the state of Colorado, we are surprised and disappointed by Gov. Hickenlooper’s decision to sue the City of Longmont,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. “Counties and municipalities have both the right and responsibility to take action to protect the public heath and well-being of our citizens and the environment.“
A spokesman said the governor’s office wouldn’t respond to the letter until it’s been carefully reviewed.
State officials have previously said they want to ensure a fair regulatory playing field with statewide rules to give the energy industry some regulatory certainty. That’s important in the context of Colorado competing with other states for energy development, according industry officials.
Hickenlooper earlier this year convened a task force to try and find common ground between state regulations, the industry and local governments. The group made some progress but fell short of covering all the bases. The state lawsuit essentially seeks to void all of Longmont’s regulations. Read the complaint here.
“Longmont was sued by the State of Colorado for trying to incent oil and gas operators to be good neighbors,” said Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs. “The Governor says he wants to work with local communities, but then he takes us to court for trying to do the right thing for our citizens.”
“Basically, the state doesn’t want other cities to follow suit,” Coombs said. “In principle, we’ve worked really well with our local operators. We just don’t want drilling in our residentially zoned neighborhoods,” he added.
Local governments see the lawsuit as a state power play, aimed at establishing primacy over energy development regulations, and Colorado’s home rule jurisdictions are not happy at all.
“Local governments have a long history of using our existing authorities to govern industrial and development activities — including oil and gas development — within our borders on behalf of the public good,” said Carbondale Mayor Stacey Bernot. “This well-established local authority has been repeatedly upheld by the courts.”
Colorado counties, cities and towns regularly use their land use authorities to manage and tailor activities within their borders on behalf of public health, safety and welfare, and environmental protection. The letter notes that this approach has worked well for a range of land uses, including commercial and residential development, as well as many industrial uses that also are subject to regulation by the state such as gravel extraction and mining.
The Longmont land use regulations address oil and gas exploration by encouraging oil and gas operators to consolidate operations to fewer overall facility operations. In exchange for meeting voluntary standards—such as setbacks from occupied buildings, schools, and playgrounds—Longmont will fast track its administrative review process.
Longmont regulations also rely on the local powers to zone within its boundaries and correspondingly limit surface operations and facilities to non-residential zones.
“We support responsible oil and gas development when pursued in appropriate locations and in a manner that limits environmental, public health, and socio-economic impacts, said Boulder County Commissioner and former Boulder Mayor Will Toor, “We want to partner with Gov. Hickenlooper in crafting and implementing regulatory solutions that work statewide but also address local concerns.“
Increasing oil and gas development is a growing statewide issue, exacerbated by the recent discovery of the Niobrara gas play and the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing techniques to get at previously inaccessible formations. Public concerns range from potential air and water pollution and related public health risks, increased truck traffic, and increased greenhouse gas emissions from fugitive methane leaks, to negative effects on recreation, scenic amenities, and private land values.
The full text of the letter and all the signatories: