Jeff Robbins, state’s top oil and gas regulator, talks local control and setbacks

State regulators are writing new rules to protect public health and safety when issuing drilling permits

Jeff Robbins, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, at his office in Denver on April 19, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

Jeff Robbins now leads the state commission he once took to court.

The attorney from Durango spent two decades helping local governments regulate the booming oil and gas industry. Several such battles pitted him against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a state agency that has long promoted drilling.

His appointment to the commission marks a profound philosophical shift in how Colorado oversees the $31 billion industry.

The sea change comes after the industry spent $40 million successfully fighting a ballot measure to increase setbacks between drill rigs and homes fivefold. The measure failed. But as Robbins was settling into the new role, lawmakers took that mantle and rewrote regulations for oil and gas drilling. The regulatory overhaul comes as unhealthy ozone levels across the Front Range, due to emissions from automobiles and oil and gas wells, are on the rise. The 2016 fatal home explosion from a severed natural gas flowline is also still on the minds of many.

Democrats, who swept control of the state House, Senate and governor’s office in November, passed the new regulations amid fierce pushback from the oil and gas industry. Business owners bused workers to the Capitol to testify against the bill, Senate Bill 181. Trade groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads to drum up opposition. The proposed regulations, trade groups said, would crush the state’s economy.

Robbins will oversee that regulatory transformation as the newly mandated seven-member board, five of whom will be appointed by the governor, comes up with new rules this summer for issuing permits. Those rules, the law says, must protect public health, safety and the environment, a sharp turn from the commission’s previous mandate of fostering oil and gas development. Local governments will also have more say in how they choose to regulate oil and gas activity.

The 52-year-old from Georgia moved to Durango in 1996. He began his career as an attorney helping La Plata County, in southwest Colorado, defend some of the first local regulations over oil and gas drilling in Colorado. Methane leaks from well in the region were once visible from space. Robbins later worked with cities and counties across the Front Range, where the booming population was clashing with oil and gas rigs.

Robbins stepped into the job — first as acting director then as director — earlier this year to find more than 6,000 pending drilling permits on his desk. He has undertaken a personal review of certain permits, including those that fall within 1,500 feet of a home. Some of these will be delayed weeks as he checks them against the mandates of the new law.  Others, he said, may have to wait nearly a year until the new rules implementing the law are completed. The deadline to comment on his proposed review criteria is 5 p.m. Monday, April 29.

Despite his background and indicative of just how contentious the issue has been, Robbins chooses his words around the regulations carefully, sidestepping any personal opinion, referring often to the language of the law. But, change is on the horizon, he said. 

Our interview with Robbins is part of a series of ongoing conversations with key members of the Polis administration. Find our interviews with Dean Williams, of the Department of Corrections, here, Dan Gibbs, of the Department of Natural Resources, here, Will Toor, of the Colorado Energy Office, here, and Kate Greenberg, of the Department of Agriculture, here.

The following transcript of our conversation in April, which included phone interviews, was edited for clarity and length.

What have you heard from the oil and gas industry since Senate Bill 181 was passed?

At this point [the] industry is receptive. They are rolling up their sleeves. They are meeting with me and being responsive in terms of 181 as our new statutory mandate.

What about the concern we heard in the state legislature, that these changes are going to kill jobs?

Personally, I’m not hearing that position from industry. I think the industry is instead realizing that 181 is a reality and we all need to work within its confines.

What was it like to fight some of the early battles over local control in La Plata County?

Back in those days, in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, La Plata County’s coalbed methane play was pretty intensive. And they were moving [to]double and triple the number of wells. So the community had adopted one of the first sets of land-use regulations over oil and gas. And those regulations … had been litigated all the way to the (Colorado) Supreme Court. That established the first case, Bowen-Edwards, that said local governments have the ability to regulate oil and gas.

La Plata County vs Bowen-Edwards also established argument that local regulations cannot conflict with those set by the state. How did you navigate that in the courts?

That’s one of the reasons we turned to negotiations with operators. We also pivoted to crafting regulations that [were not in conflict] to try to accomplish the goals of the communities back then. Back then, the goal we all wanted was for wells to be located on the same pad. We didn’t want wells sprinkled around all over the place.

You worked on this issue of local government control when serving on former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force back in 2014. What was achieved from that process?

I felt like ultimately the structure of that led toward moderate results. It didn’t lead to effective tools … that would have had a real impact on the problem that we were trying to address, which is the proximity of large-scale wells to people. … I don’t think it was successful. (But) I like to try to look at terms through a positive prism. There were a lot of good ideas that were generated through that task force. Moving from “fostering” oil and gas development to “regulating” oil and gas development in a manner that is protective found its way into [Senate Bill] 181. … The task force served as sort of a percolator for ideas.

What can you do now in your current role to enable local control?

[The bill] allows a local government [to use land-use powers to say where wells can and can’t be located]. This state commission will need to honor that in our applications and we will need to use what local government is doing when we look at locations and siting. This commission [also] can be of assistance to local governments through the technical review panel or review board. … Local governments, from my work as a local government lawyer, they don’t necessarily have [drilling] expertise on board. We do.

More generally, what deference do you plan to give to local governments when making your own permitting decisions.

Local governments have their charge to regulate for the first time surface issues, nuisance issues, issues associated with development and location issues. I think for the handful of local governments that are going to use that authority, we’re going to work hand and hand with them. I’m hoping we can harmoniously sync up what we’re doing with what they’re doing. 

Let’s say a local government enacts a ban on oil and gas development. How would that factor into your decision-making process when permitting wells there?

I’ve gone on record several times that I don’t believe 181 provides the state or local governments [the authority] to enact blanket bans. I don’t think that was the intent of the legislation. This commission retains the mandate that we’re to ensure resources development in a manner that is protective of health, safety, welfare and the environment. And a blanket ban is not doing the first part which is ensuring resource development. I think if a local community were to apply for a blanket ban, I don’t know if it would be the decision of the commission to defer to that. … I don’t believe this state agency has the ability for a blanket ban nor do I think that was the intent of the legislature or the governor.

An oil rig outside the town of Erie is one of Colorado’s 50,000 active drilling operations. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

You’ve laid out a set of criteria under which drilling permits need additional review. One condition is if a well falls within 1,500 feet of a building. What concerns do you have with the current 500-foot setback, and the fact some homes are within 500 feet of wells?

Indeed, wells are supposed to be located beyond that distance. There has always been this dilemma that the commission does not have authority over development of homes near wells. That’s up to each local jurisdiction as to what they believe is appropriate. But I’m supportive of the idea of placing large oil and gas facilities farther away from homes. In doing that you achieve all the goals we’re trying to achieve: of compatibility, less health impacts, and less noise, less visual, [etc.]. All those concerns are lessened farther away. I think anyone in the state of Colorado would agree with that, including the operators.

Can you tell me more about your thoughts on setbacks for larger oil and gas facilities?

The distance of facilities to homes has been integral to the debate over the years. And I think that will be integral to the rulemaking that the volunteer commission takes up over the next year. … I think that all the stakeholders — whether it’s from the environmental community or from the oil and gas operators themselves — understand the farther away large facilities can be located from homes, the better mitigations are arrived at.

What do you think of the studies on the health impacts of living next to wells?

When we have a professional commission …  it’s going to elevate opportunities for this COGCC to [consider health impacts]. And I think that is going to be important as we grapple with the idea that we’re supposed to look at and address cumulative impacts and alternative sites. All of that is going to be really helpful as those rules are developed.

Given what we know about ozone and how it can exacerbate health issues such as asthma, and given what we know about how much oil and gas contributes to ozone problem across the Front Range, which exceeds federal health standards, how is it that the state can issue any permits that protect public health and safety?

That question is best directed at the Air Quality Control Commission, who’s mandated via 181 to look into methane emissions and oil and gas emissions from oil and gas facilities.

One of the components of the rulemaking under 181 is to look at cumulative impacts of oil and gas development and impacts on health and safety more generally. You don’t think the ozone issue falls within your purview?

I think that once the commission undertakes the cumulative impacts rulemaking, which it is mandated to do over the next year, that will be part of that. We will receive stakeholder input from all sides to help guide the commission.

So what will be the role of the Air Quality Control Commission in COGCC’s mandate to protect public health and safety?

We have a meeting set up next week between the two agencies to start those discussions about working together to address these issues.

Why would you want to move from Durango to the Front Range, leave your family behind and work with a bunch of oil and gas attorneys?

I’m honored that the governor and Dan Gibbs [head of the Department of Natural Resources] think that I’m the right person to do this job. It’s a tremendous opportunity for me and the state. I’m looking forward to moving forward on all of the challenges that are ahead of us.

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