Colorado's battles over oil and gas drilling intensified Tuesday as Gov. John Hickenlooper called Boulder County commissioners who drafted tough new regulations to his office, urging a resolution of conflicts over how companies will be regulated outside court.
Hickenlooper told the commissioners he feels bad about the state's current lawsuit challenging Longmont's authority to pass its own regulations. There's "inherent conflict" in Colorado's split-estate system for mining minerals that lets drillers diminish residents' quality of life without paying compensation, he acknowledged.
But Hickenlooper favors state-level handling of oil and gas operations — not a mish-mash of local regulations — as companies drill for gas near and, in some cases, directly under Colorado Front Range communities.
"We've been through this with a number of different counties," Hickenlooper said, with conflicts resolved by relying on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which now is adjusting state rules. "We can still get there without having to go to court."
Boulder commissioners countered that drilling around communities has affected constituents more deeply than any other issue over the past decade and that they, as elected officials, have to respond to people's concerns.
"How are we going to keep these sorts of operations from disrupting our communities?" Commissioner Will Toor said.
Hickenlooper pledged to work with the county to sort out state and county regulations. "I am happy and willing to commit to that."
The confab was meant to be an informal meeting with Hickenlooper and his chiefs of natural resources, public health and the environment, COGCC director Matt Lepore, and commissioners Toor, Cindy Domenico, Deb Gardner and Commissioner-elect Elise Jones.
However, a dozen or so residents showed up, too. Hickenlooper obliged, setting out chairs. His office was packed.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis attended — "to show solidarity" with constituents in Boulder County. Polis pointed to federal regulations that apply to oil and gas operations — established "as a floor, not a ceiling" so that state governments can add more.
"That is certainly a much longer discussion," Hickenlooper said.
Since February, Boulder County has refused to process oil and gas drilling applications under a moratorium — extended until Feb. 4 — while they redo regulations written in 1993 that govern drilling in the county.
The commissioners are reviewing a 246-page document laying out new regulations that cover truck damage to roads, emergency response capabilities, air and water quality, setbacks from homes and consultations with residents. Companies seeking swift approval for drilling would have to agree to bigger buffer zones, more air and water monitoring, and better consultation.
Boulder County authorities "are trying to create protective regulations — not expedite permits," planning manager Kim Sanchez said away from the meeting. "We're engaging with the COGCC as well as the industry to identify areas of conflict."
But the county's emerging approach does indeed clash with the COGCC approach in some areas, Lepore told commissioners. For example, the county demands "no significant degradation" by companies, which "seems a little vague," Lepore said. "That's a general area of concern."
The state legislature has charged the COGCC with both supporting and regulating oil and gas companies. The agency can send out inspectors to help enforce state regulations developed in 2007. These now are being refined, possibly to include requirements that companies test groundwater before drilling and ensure bigger buffer zones between wells and houses, hospitals and schools.
Yet, around Colorado, cities and counties increasingly are getting involved as residents pack meetings demanding all-out bans on drilling. Longmont voters just changed the city charter to prohibit drilling inside the city.
For more than a year, Hickenlooper has encouraged development of a single set of state regulations that allow drilling and also protect health and the environment — an approach he says will give companies the consistency they need and lead to statewide economic growth.