Hickenlooper cautions against more local control over oil and gas drilling

Governor John Hickenlooper Thursday praised state oil and gas regulators for passing the toughest hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure rule in the country and warned against proposed legislation that would give local governments more authority over drilling.

Gas drilling in Garfield County (David O. Williams photo).
“When the Environmental Defense Fund and Halliburton stood together in Colorado in support of the state’s new ‘fracking’ disclosure rule, other states took notice,” Hickenlooper said during his State of the State address. “It’s another reason why we believe so passionately in the power of partnership and collaboration.”

State Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said last month he was working on a bill with Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, that would give local governments greater control over drilling operations, including hydraulic fracturing. They’ll be fighting an uphill battle with Hickenlooper, however.

“In that same spirit [of collaboration], we intend to work with counties and municipalities to make sure we have appropriate regulation on oil and gas development, but recognize the state can’t have 64 or even more different sets of rules,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the number of counties in the state.

With a major drilling boom looming in the Niobrara Shale Formation beneath the state’s northern Front Range, some local governments have expressed concern that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) isn’t doing enough to ensure air and water quality.

Environmental groups have called on the COGCC to continue the rulemaking process on issues such as reclamation of drilling sites and drilling rig setbacks from homes and public buildings, claiming those issues weren’t adequately addressed by the state during the revision of the regulations in 2008. COGCC director David Neslin could not be reached for comment this week.

“My focus has been actually getting the oil and gas commission to move ahead on the rules we have already given them the authority for,” state Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, said. “Some of the issues are reclamation, setbacks, and the other issue is air quality.”

Schwartz said the COGCC can go ahead with a rulemaking on those issues without the legislature getting involved.

“They have the authority to do it; we’ve already done it legislatively,” Schwartz said. “We’ve already had that fight. We have the battle scars from that. We need to have the commission stepping up and really using their authority as opposed to providing more legislation, and if they don’t, it will call for more legislation.”

On the issue of more local control, Jones reportedly told the Boulder County commissioners last month that, “It just seems that local governments don’t have a lot of authority” to regulate oil and gas operations. But La Plata County in southwestern Colorado has had its own set of fairly stringent drilling regulations since the 1990s.

Industry critics in Garfield County have suggested counties need to start regulating oil and gas drilling using state 1041 powers, which are typically reserved for overseeing major infrastructure projects – such as water and power lines – that have significant impact on growing communities.

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, recently told the Denver Post that giving counties more authority would create “a patchwork of regulations” across the state. Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, said, “Whoever brings that forward, the duty will be on them to prove that there’s value added with the legislation beyond what is already in existing compromise rules.”

The COGCC’s Neslin has previously told the Colorado Independent that issues of state versus local control over drilling ultimately may have to be settled on a case-by-case basis by the attorney general.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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