BOULDER -- Boulder County's 16-month-old moratorium on accepting new applications for oil and gas development in unincorporated areas of the county will be extended for another 18 months, county commissioners decided Tuesday afternoon.

Commissioners Cindy Domenico, Deb Gardner and Elise Jones drew cheers from an overflow hearing room audience of anti-fracking activists when they cast their vote.

The additional year and a half could give Boulder County more time to consult and participate in more studies about the public health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting sand, water and chemicals to free up underground natural gas deposits, the commissioners said, while allowing the county to try to ensure that its own staff is adequately prepared to inspect and monitor conditions before, during and after drilling gets under way.

Domenico said the county has been working on new oil and gas regulations since February 2012 and that the result has been "the strongest local level rules in the state."

Even so, she said, Boulder County's land use regulations may not yet be as comprehensive or restrictive as the commissioners and many county residents might like.

Domenico said she's come to the conclusion "that an extension makes sense," but she emphasized that the commissioners aren't doing it "lightly" and aren't doing it just "because it's a popular thing."


Said Gardner: "We are living in a regulatory environment where regulations and rules are changing rapidly ... A short delay in extraction is legal, necessary and appropriate when balanced against our fundamental duty as elected officials to protect public health, safety, welfare and the environment from potential adverse impacts of oil and gas exploration and development, and to minimize potential land use conflicts between those activities and current or planned land uses."

Cliff Willmeng, of Lafayette, talks to a crowd of anti-fracking activists outside of the Boulder County Courthouse on Tuesday before the start of the
Cliff Willmeng, of Lafayette, talks to a crowd of anti-fracking activists outside of the Boulder County Courthouse on Tuesday before the start of the Boulder County Commissioners meeting regarding the fracking moratorium. (Jeremy Papasso/For the Times-Call)

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Attorney General's Office objected to any extension of the moratorium, in a letter signed by COGCC director Matt Lepore and assistant attorney general Jake Matter.

"Boulder County's temporary moratorium, which has been in place for more than 16 months, has served the purposes for which it was intended," Lepore and Matter wrote, warning in their letter that "rolling moratoriums become injunctions disguised as moratoriums.

"There is no legal basis for extending the moratorium, and no practical reason to do so other than prohibiting and preventing mineral owners from accessing their property," Lepore and Matter said in that letter.

Andrew Casper, an attorney for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, wrote that "any additional extension of the current moratorium is a de facto ban on oil and gas development in Boulder County, a taking of private property rights, and contrary to Colorado law."

Jamie Jost, an attorney for Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., wrote Boulder County's commissioners that "the proposed extension is completely unnecessary" because the 16 months that the current moratorium has been in place "had provided more than sufficient time to complete the adoption and implementation of the revised oil and gas regulations."

Jost said a county ban on oil and gas development through an extension of the current moratorium directly conflicts with the state's primary authority over regulating oil and gas operations.

Dave Neslin and R., Kirk Mueller, attorneys for Noble Energy Inc., wrote that while Boulder County extending the moratorium would violate Colorado law because the county can only impose such a moratorium if its duration "does not exceed the time required to prepare and adopt the applicable land use regulations" that Boulder County adopted in December.

Neslin and Mueller also wrote that "by extending the moratorium, the county would effectively mandate that the energy it consumes be produced elsewhere. But elsewhere inevitably involves someone else's back yard; therefore, this is not a realistic or fruitful model for other communities."

Said Neslin and Mueller: "The county would provide a greater service by demonstrating how to work with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and operators like Noble and Encana to ensure that environmental issues are responsibly addressed."

The county got more than 1,100 letters and emails about extending the moratorium, with the vast majority of them from Boulder County residents calling for continuing that timeout for one or more years.

"I am writing in support of a total ban on fracking in Boulder County," wrote Lyons resident Dianne Andrews, "or at the very least, an extension of the current moratorium. Boulder County needs a five-year moratorium on fracking to obtain public safety health data from a National Science Foundation study scheduled for completion in 2018."

Maria Wasson, who lives on North 65th Street in rural Boulder County west of Longmont, wrote: "Our most precious resources are air, water and healthy food. Without those, we die.

"Are you willing to destroy our most precious resources so we can have enough natural gas to sell overseas to make the oil and gas companies richer than they already are?" Wasson asked in her letter. "If so, you are choosing to go down a very destructive road that leads to nothing but death."

Longmont residents Shelley and Joe Bassman predicted that "once wells are permitted, they will persist for decades, and they will be subject to the regulation in effect now. The long-term risk to our health and our community is profound."

Longmont resident Marcy White wrote: "The camel's nose is already under the tent. Please help us stop the gas companies from controlling our county, politically and environmentally."

White said, "Once the bits break the ground, we'll be losing any leverage we now have" and "the wells will continue to give off toxins even if they are subsequently forced to close down."

Gunbarrel resident Marcy Metzger wrote: "Protecting Boulder County citizens -- our health, our families, our homes, our neighborhoods, our lifestyles, our investments -- has to take priority." She urged Boulder County to take a year or more before again considering the resumption of accepting drilling applications, "until all the impacts have been clearly identified, presented to the public and addressed to the satisfaction of the residents."

The commissioners are scheduled to cast a Thursday vote on a resolution that would formally extend the moratorium.