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Colorado: Gov. Hickenlooper says state drilling rules must stand, rejects call to withdraw lawsuit against Longmont

Longmont, Colorado.

Response to local elected officials emphasizes cooperative approach

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Gov. John Hickenlooper this week responded to concerns expressed by local government officials around the state about a state lawsuit challenging duly adopted local oil and gas drilling regulations.

A long list of elected lawmakers from around Colorado all signed on to a letter asking Hickenlooper to withdraw the suit and work cooperatively with local communitites.

In his response, Hickenlooper said the state’s lawsuit against Longmont was a “last resort,” after attempts to resolve concerns about locally adopted oil and gas drilling regulations failed. Read Gov. Hickenlooper’s letter here.

According to Hickenlooper, the state’s powers override local regulations, and the lawsuit seeks to preempt Longmont’s setback rules, which effectively steer well pads away from residential areas.

The city claims the right to impose higher and more restrictive standards, but the state says its rules take precedent. Last week’s letter from elected officials from around the entire state blasted Hickenlooper for challenging local jurisdictions from adopting regulations aimed at protecting residents.

“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 to Summit Voice. “In principle, we’ve worked really well with our local operators. We just don’t want drilling in our residentially zoned neighborhoods,” he added.

The lawsuit focuses on maximizing profitable recovery of oil and gas rather than protecting citizens’ well-being, safety and health. From the lawsuit:

“It is necessary to drill wells in a pattern dictated by the pressure characteristics of the pool, and because each well will only drain a portion of the pool, an irregular drilling pattern will result in less than optimal recovery and a corresponding waste of oil and gas.”

According to the lawsuit, The state’s well location, spacing and setback rules are central to the state’s mandate to protect against “waste in the production and utilization of oil and gas.”

Read the whole lawsuit here.

The state rules don’t include strong setback rules to protect streams, wildlife habitat and riparian areas, and that has been criticized by conservation and community advocates as a big weakness in the state rules.

Given the ability of energy companies to drill almost at will, even near neighborhoods, parks and streams, the state’s insistent claims that Colorado’s rules are some of the strongest in the country ring hollow to residents of some communities threatened by drilling.

The state language is weak because it only requires operators to reduce adverse impacts on wildlife habitat, wetlands and riparian “where feasible” by using directional drilling.

The state lawsuit also seeks to void Longmont’s wildlife and species protection rules, as well as a ban on surface facilities and operations in residential areas, claiming that the city’s rules conflicts with pre-established drilling windows set by the state.

Local officials say that’s a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t meet the needs of local communities.

Longmont also adopted strict reporting requirements for chemicals relating to oil and gas drilling; again, the state claims its own rules supercede the city regulations.

According to Hickenlooper, cooperation between state regulators and local officials is the best way to achieve results that work for everyone — especially the use of local government designees, which he characterized as a “powerful but underutilized tool” in developing site-specific oil and gas drilling regs.

Hickenlooper also said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s expertise enables the state to develop appropriate rules.

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