After months on the sidelines, Boulder is joining the statewide debate on fracking and local control with a possible moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.
Longmont is engaged in a legal battle with the state over its own regulations and a voter-approved ban on the process, and Boulder County adopted regulations late last year. A county moratorium is set to expire in June. It's uncertain whether the county commissioners might extend it.
Boulder officials say the risk of anyone attempting to drill for oil and gas within city limits is remote, but open space lands -- where often the city does not own the mineral rights under the land -- may be at risk. The Boulder City Council will consider whether to adopt a moratorium on fracking in the city and on city-owned property at its June 4 meeting.
Council members asked the City Attorney's Office late Tuesday night to research the matter. City Attorney Tom Carr said he needs to research what legal liability, if any, the city would have from a moratorium, especially if it was to extend beyond a year. He also needs to research whether the moratorium could extend to open space lands in unincorporated Boulder County.
Boulder has longstanding regulations on oil and gas drilling on open space that have never been challenged.
Open Space Director Mike Patton said there are 109 documented oil or gas wells on open space, 14 of which are active, but it has been a long time since anyone has even applied for a permit.
The city gets several requests for information every year. Officials give the interested parties a copy of the regulations, which include provisions such as not contaminating groundwater, but so far no one has returned, Patton said.
"Our regulations have some things in them that you might not want to engage with unless you wanted to get involved in a lawsuit," Patton said.
However, those regulations have not been updated since 1993.
City officials are working on updating those rules, as well as clarifying the city's authority within Boulder limits, looking at what steps are necessary to protect city water utility property and drafting an ordinance to ensure city water is not used for fracking. However, they are unlikely to finish those tasks before the county moratorium expires.
At the same time, activists from the Sierra Club Indian Peaks Group have called on the city to adopt a five-year moratorium on fracking. They say the health effects are not widely understood, and more study is needed.
More than a dozen anti-fracking activists addressed the City Council on Tuesday night. They said the state has failed to protect local communities, and Boulder needs to act.
"350 Boulder believes there are numerous unresolved concerns about fracking impacting public health and safety, public land, water and air, that demand that responsible communities push a pause button while public health studies are conducted," said Susan Secord, a Boulder resident and member of 350 Boulder, a local environmental group.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission considers regulating oil and gas drilling to be its responsibility and has sued Longmont to assert its authority. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, warned other communities that they would be sued, too, if they tried to ban fracking.
The county commissioners have attempted to stay on the right side of the state by focusing their regulations on the local impacts of fracking, rather than the practice itself. The commissioners have a hearing scheduled for next week on whether to adopt road impact fees for oil and gas companies.
County officials believe their regulations would also apply to city-owned land in the county, but spokeswoman Barbara Halpin said they would work with the city.
Robert Randall, deputy director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said he could not comment on how the oil and gas commission would respond to a hypothetical moratorium.
"How the State responds will depend on exactly what the City Council does with regard to a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing -- its rationale for taking action, the duration and scope of a moratorium, etc.," Randall said in an email.
Carr said multi-year moratoriums like that requested by the Sierra Club tend to be harder to defend, though he planned to review the legal rationale presented by activists.
Boulder City Council members were generally supportive of a moratorium through the end of the year.
Councilman Macon Cowles said the city should put the moratorium on the ballot to show state regulators that it is not just the nine members of the City Council who are concerned about fracking, but the entire community.
Patton said city officials believe their regulations have the most authority on city-owned land.
"We're going to be pretty tenacious about holding onto our rights to our property," Patton said.
The open space department has tried to research the cost to buy up mineral rights on open space property. However, the sale of mineral rights does not need to be recorded, and it can be difficult and time-consuming to track down ownership information.
The city has hired an attorney with expertise in the area to assist its efforts.
Councilman Ken Wilson said people should keep in mind that cheap natural gas is an important resource.
"The reason we're not freezing in this building is because we're burning natural gas," Wilson said. "The reason we're not freezing in our homes is because we're burning natural gas."
Wilson pointed out the city's municipalization plans also depend in large part on cheap natural gas.
Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum said the city still has a special interest in fracking because the lands vulnerable to oil and gas drilling are open space.
"We're not looking at generic lands," he said. "We're looking at open space that has been bought for preservation."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.