Boulder-area lawmakers take aim at fracking

A well in Weld County
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Fracking will be squarely in the crosshairs of several Boulder County lawmakers during the legislative session that started this week, due in part to frustration with the way a state commission recently chose to regulate oil and gas operations.

On Jan. 7, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) adopted a new rule for groundwater testing that environmental activists called one of the weakest in the nation, regulations that some say requires only a modicum of testing in the heavily drilled Wattenberg Field, which extends into eastern Boulder County.

The decision seems to have only fueled Democratic lawmakers’ desire to take matters into their own hands when it comes to setting policy for oil and gas operations in Colorado. And they say they intend to not only augment health and safety measures surrounding drilling and extraction processes, but wrest some power away from the COGCC and turn it over to local governments.

“I had hoped the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission would do something responsible and robust, and I don’t even think they got to responsible,” State Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, told Boulder Weekly, adding that the commission’s new rule only requires the drilling of one groundwater monitoring well per square mile, which makes it likely that the spread of any contamination won’t be detected until it’s out of hand.

“Even if you found something with that, it would be so late that you couldn’t ever fix it, 5,000 or 8,000 feet down,” he says. “People are watching the rulemaking and are very disappointed in it.”

Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, adds that the state’s new setback of 500 feet from homes and schools — it has historically been 350 feet — is “just not acceptable to most Boulder County residents. … I’m not sure any number is necessarily acceptable, but certainly something more than 500 feet has got to be in order.”

“We were hoping the recommendations of the Department of Natural Resources and the COGCC would be robust and adequate enough to satisfy a lot of the concerns we have and our constituents have,” says House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Longmont. “We’re finding that’s probably not the case at this point.”

Jones and Foote say they intend to sponsor legislation related to fracking, although they are loath to get into details since they want to see what the COGCC does and more conversations and negotiations are needed before bills are introduced. They say other legislators from other areas around the state that have been affected by oil and gas drilling are interested in sponsoring legislation as well. State Sen. Morgan Carroll. D-Aurora, recently announced that she is introducing a bill that would require water testing before and after drilling as well as priority permit processing for companies using “green” completion standards. It establishes a 2,000-foot setback from homes, schools, hospitals, radioactive sources, explosives and Superfund sites — unless approved by the relevant local government.

More local control appears to be high on several lawmakers’ agendas, in fact.

“We need to give local governments the tools and ability to regulate this appropriately,” Hullinghorst says. “They’re the ones that can do it best on a case-by-case basis.”

Hullinghorst doubts an outright statewide ban on fracking would stand up in court, but there are other measures available to lawmakers, from stiffer fines for violations to better bonding so that taxpayers aren’t left holding the bag when problems arise.

When asked about the battle cry from the other side — that impinging on oil and gas development will have a negative effect on jobs and the economy — Boulder County’s Democratic lawmakers point to the economic damage done by not regulating the practice sufficiently.

Hullinghorst points to decreasing property values and declines in tourism and recreation opportunities.

“Oil and gas revenue is important, and we recognize that,” she says. “It just needs to be balanced, and balanced appropriately with the other needs of the state, with public health, which has to be top priority, and with other economic concerns. It’s a balancing act.”

Jones says clean air and clean water are a crucial part of Colorado’s “brand” that attracts employers and their jobs.

“In our area, that’s why high-tech companies come here, or biotech, or the beer industry,” he says. “Industry tends to talk about jobs all the time and leave out the part that they have the responsibility of proving that this thing is safe, and others shouldn’t bear any kind of problems based on their activities.”

Jones also rips the oil and gas industry for its recent effort to suppress testimony from its critics at hearings before the COGCC.

“I thought it was atrocious to not let regular people voice their concerns about something that directly affects them, and is directly affecting their families, and directly affects their quality of life and their jobs,” he says.

Foote agrees. “I found the recent request by the industry to limit or eliminate testimony at the recent COGCC hearings to be pretty outrageous,” he told BW. “I think history shows that when one side starts trying to limit speech from another side, then that side knows they’re losing, and any attempt to try to stop public testimony should be fought at every step of the way.

“Right now, what we have is the industry saying, ‘Hey, this is safe, trust us,’” he continues. “And then you have the COGCC meetings where real people stand up and say, ‘Hey, this is how this has been affecting me or my neighbors.’ I guess the industry doesn’t want people to hear that. But it seems like at this point it’s really the only counterbalance we have to what the industry is saying.”

When asked what happens if the COGCC tries to delay some of its decisions until after it’s too late for legislators to step in and strengthen its new regulations, Hullinghorst says, “Then we will act anyway. There’s the expectation that we do something. So I think we’re going to do it, one way or another.”

COGCC Director Matt Lepore did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

In response to a question about whether the battle over fracking will become as partisan as it was in the previous legislative session, Foote says, “I hope not, but having said that, it certainly could be, particularly if it divides up into the debate lines that it did last time, which is, is it about jobs or is it not about jobs? Really, it should be about health and safety, and I don’t see how that’s a partisan issue.”

He adds that since there is an estimated $500 million in oil and gas resources sitting under the city of Longmont alone, the cost incurred by more regulation is going to be a drop in the bucket.

“Any kind of additional protections are going to be chicken feed compared to the amount of money these companies are going to make,” Foote says.