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Counties Negotiate More Local Control for Oil and Gas


As new technology allows the oil and gas industry to develop areas once thought to be off-limits, across Colorado, local governments are pushing the boundaries of the state’s regulatory authority to protect land and citizens. KVNF’s Ariana Brocious reports that can land them in tricky territory.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency, is the regulatory authority in Colorado. But Gunnison County Commissioners are leading the way in renegotiating some of that authority. In late August, they updated their nine-year old county-specific oil and gas regulations, which they say was necessary to stay ahead of the curve of increased oil and gas development. Matt Reed is public lands director at High Country Citizens Alliance, in Crested Butte. He says the new rules encourage oil and gas operators to minimize their environmental impact.  

They’re not perfect, they’re far from perfect, but significantly stronger than previous regulations. Gunnison County has never denied an oil and gas permit. And I think these amendments will better protect human health and environment, not only in Gunnison County but downstream in Delta County.

The new regulations further restrict activities around water bodies, and include requirements for water quality monitoring, and disposal of hydraulic fracturing fluids. Gunnison County Commissioner Hap Channell says they especially prioritized water quality, partly because much of the county’s gas activity takes place near the headwaters of the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

We basically understand that clean water is our lifeblood. It is the basis for virtually everything we do over here, from quality of life to economics to etcetera, etcetera.

David Ludlam is director of the Western Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group. His group isn’t totally in favor of the regulations.

Our organization has said all along that there are elements of the new regulations that are problematic, going to conflict with state regulations and probably increase costs.

Commissioner Channell says they were very aware of the line between state and local authority when crafting their own regulations.

You know we tried to stay away from the areas that the state has jurisdiction in, to a significant extent, and to focus on those areas that we have authority in.

While hammering out these county-specific regulations, Gunnison County also approached the state commission about getting more local oversight from them on drilling. After a series of negotiations, the state agreed to let the county hire and pay for their own local oil and gas inspector, who will be trained and supervised by the state. Commissioner Channell says this should help ensure inspections happen more regularly than they would with over-burdened state-wide inspectors.

This is a precedent setting agreement that provides for state to delegate inspection authority so that it will increase inspection scrutiny, and hopefully increase our watchfulness on drilling operations.

Ginny Brannon is the assistant director of water and energy for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. She says the authority-sharing agreement wasn’t all that unusual, but Gunnison county’s attitude was.

That's a tool that’s always been in the toolbox, it just hasn’t been used before. What we haven’t had is a local jurisdiction coming to us saying, we’d like to work with you, what are our options?

But that peaceful power negotiation hasn’t happened in other parts of the state, like Longmont, in Boulder County. There, the state agency is suing the city over their new local regulations, which include prohibiting drilling in residential areas. But Brannon says the two cases couldn’t be more different.

What Longmont has done has passed regulations that we think are operationally in conflict with state regs. That’s problematic because if we have a patchwork of rules that deal with the operative aspects of oil and gas drilling which is clearly under the state purview, that results in a very uneven regulatory environment.

Longmont isn’t the only place to try to impose stricter local control on oil and gas activity. Similar efforts in El Paso and Arapaho counties were shot down by Colorado’s Attorney General John Suthers earlier this year, who also cited the need for uniform regulation.

For her part, Ginny Brannon says that the state has been actively trying to help local jurisdictions more—offering trainings on what activities local government CAN regulate, and bolstering the role of each county’s local government designee—the appointed representative to work with the industry and the state commission. The agency also recently hired two new liaisons whose sole job is to work with local jurisdictions on these issues, says Brannon.

So that’s a very robust way for local governments to get what they want, and that’s what we’re encouraging.

Recently, several state and national environmental groups have pushed the state agency to revisit its rules regarding setbacks in residential areas, as well as protections for air and water quality. And in spite of opposition from the gas industry, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore has said he'll ask his agency to formally launch a new rule-making process to revise parts of Colorado's 2008  regulations.

Meanwhile, Gunnison Commissioner Hap Channell says it remains to be seen what the state thinks of their new regulations.

I think the jury is still out on the effect of our revisions on our relationship with industry and state. This is a living document. Anytime you codify regulations you’re not going to get it 100% correct, and it will continuously need to be tweaked.

Several other Western Slope counties are watching things play out in Gunnison County and Longmont before launching their own regulatory efforts.