Environmentalists blast Colorado’s new drilling task force as Trojan horse

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s intervention in the debate over whether the state or local jurisdictions should regulate oil and gas drilling is rankling environmentalists who, two days earlier, called him out for making misleading statements on groundwater contamination.

The governor signed an executive order Wednesday to create an 11-member task force “to help clarify and better coordinate” the regulatory jurisdiction between the state and local governments over oil and gas operations. He asked the task force to report its recommendations and findings to him, the speaker of the state House and president of the state Senate by April 18.

The move follows heated debate at the capitol, where a Republican senator proposed empowering the state with sole regulatory authority over drilling. The proposal, HB 12-088, died in the Democrat-controlled Senate. A competing bill, introduced by a Democrat, would have assigned oil and gas regulatory power to local governments. It was killed in the GOP-controlled House.

Drilling in suburbia.

“County land use regulations, ordinances and charter amendments empowered by the Colorado Constitution and upheld by the courts here and in New York, are the only means left for people to protect their communities from the excesses of an abusively powerful industry,” said Ceal Smith of the newly launched Coalition for a Clean Colorado.

“Two weeks ago, thousands of citizens spoke firmly against HB 12-088 and in favor of local regulatory authority over oil and gas activities. The governor’s executive order on fracking is a blatant attempt to circumvent the will of the people,” Smith said. “The communities most impacted have no voice or representation whatsoever on the governor’s hand-picked task force. We are frankly shocked by this autocratic assault on our democracy and community rights.”

The state task force will be chaired by Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and it will include representatives from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the Board of Directors of Colorado Counties Inc., the Colorado Municipal League, the Colorado Petroleum Association, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Colorado Conservation Voters, the Colorado House of Representatives, the Colorado Senate, and the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.

“There are two slots for industry trade associations, but there is no place on the task force for a single conservation organization with on-the-ground expertise in the effect of drilling on local communities, air and water quality, fish, wildlife, noise and dust levels,” said Kate Zimmerman, the National Wildlife Federation’s senior policy adviser on public lands.

Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, had a different take.

“I’m glad that we will have the opportunity to have a substantive discussion about regulation of the oil and gas industry in Colorado and the roles of various jurisdictions,” she told the Colorado Independent on Thursday. “For industry, it is not tenable to expect Colorado to keep attracting business investment with more than a dozen cities and counties looking at unique regulations. We commend the governor and the speaker for convening this task force and look forward to participating.”

Hickenlooper called the creation of the task force “an important step to better define state and local jurisdiction over regulatory structures as Colorado’s oil and gas industry continues to grow … We expect these efforts to also help foster a climate that encourages responsible development and enhances existing cooperation and coordination between state and local government.”

The governor caused consternation among Colorado’s conservation community recently when in a radio advertisement for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association he said, “We have not had one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.” More than a dozen environmental groups wrote him a letter to say his statement was misleading.

“Contrary to the governor’s COGA statement, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s own database documents over 1,000 oil and gas spills that have impacted groundwater since 2008,” Smith said. “These and other chemical releases legalized through a broad system of industry exemptions have already impacted the health and safety of Colorado’s communities.”

Concerned about the effects hydraulic fracturing might have on residents, Boulder County, Longmont and Colorado Springs have temporarily halted drilling activity. Commerce City, Erie and Aurora, Arapahoe County, Douglas County, Elbert County and El Paso County have all either considered or are considering enacting their own drilling laws.

The task force has been ordered to examine setbacks of oil and gas facilities, floodplain restrictions, protection of wildlife and livestock, noise abatement, operational methods, air quality, dust management, traffic management and other impacts.

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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