Update: After three hours of public testimony and heated debate among council members, the Aurora City Council voted, 6-4, to enter an agreement with ConocoPhillips. This is the first approved oil and gas operator agreement since the passage of a new state law giving local governments more control over drilling within their boundaries.
In April, just a couple weeks before Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill giving local governments more control over oil and gas drilling within their boundaries, the Aurora City Council passed an ordinance to establish agreements with oil and gas companies that lay out the do’s and don’ts of drilling in the city.
A month later, the Council issued draft agreements with two oil companies: ConocoPhillips and Extraction Oil and Gas. The agreements, if approved at a regular council meeting tonight, will more than double the number of wells in Aurora, with 45 new well-pad sites for ConocoPhillips, eight within a quarter-mile from a home. Each site would contain multiple wells, totaling as many as 250.
The agreements sparked immediate backlash from some residents. They say they are disturbed both by the terms and by the belief they were rushed and created in secrecy, designed to circumvent the new state law. That law seeks to protect public health and safety in oil and gas development.
During a study session on May 20, a divided city council voted 5-4 to move the ConocoPhillips agreement forward for a final vote tonight (Councilman Gruber was absent). The contract with Extraction Oil and Gas, which would allow for four separate well-pad locations, is under further review.
Sonia Skakich-Scrima, Aurora resident and founder of local grassroots group What the Frack?! Arapahoe, called the ConocoPhillips agreement “grossly negligent,” adding that it fails to “protect city interests and the health and safety of its residents.”
She said that the city council had “secretly negotiated away city rights and Aurora resident rights in exchange for future revenues to the city.”
But Councilman Charlie Richardson, one of the five yes votes on the council, dismissed the charges of undue secrecy. Much of the agreement, he said, had to be discussed in executive session because of legal matters related to the agreements. “As you are aware, this is very fluid with [the new law] in the works,” he told The Colorado Independent. “We need[ed] some legal advice … in terms of what we could legislate and what we couldn’t legislate.”
He also said he thought much of the criticism is coming from those opposed to fracking altogether. He noted that he represents wards in the southwest portion of the city.
“Fortunately, my area will never have the actual drilling activity as opposed to up north and east, but I got people in the ward whose jobs depend on the oil and gas industry,” he said. “I want the best regulations, but I want to be sensitive to the jobs associated with the industry.”
Councilwoman Nicole Johnston represents a ward in northeast Aurora that will have many of the new wells. She echoed residents’ concerns about how much of the agreement was negotiated behind closed doors. Once approved, she said, the agreements would be impossible to change to increase oversight or regulation of oil and gas operations without risking lawsuits from deep-pocketed oil companies. Such lawsuits could bankrupt Aurora, she added.
Once the council takes a final vote, “We are significantly locked in. This is a major legal binding agreement, where even if we want to change things, if we get a new city council some day, nothing can ever be changed,” Johnston said.
She referred to the May 20 study session during which her fellow councilwoman, Allison Hiltz — also a no vote — said she didn’t understand why there hasn’t been more public outreach.
Hiltz said the city has a more comprehensive community feedback process for its animal services code than it has had for the pending operator agreements.
The process has been expedited, Johnston said, “because it’s what the industry wants.”
“The industry is telling us we need to follow this timeline or they will lose money and opportunities for extraction, and the majority of this council is following what the industry is telling us.”
When asked to address the concerns regarding the secrecy and rush of the process, ConocoPhillips replied, “ConocoPhillips has been operating in the City of Aurora since 2013. In that time, the company has received hundreds of comments from Aurora citizens, conducted 15 open houses and offered field tours of our operations for residents. The company has worked to incorporate feedback and suggestions into our planning and operations.”
The ConocoPhillips agreements have been a work in process since 2017.
“In this situation, we have been working with Conoco for years, in terms of trying to move forward with their permits and applications,” said Councilwoman Françoise Bergan during the study session. She said both agreements are “very complete, very comprehensive; it’s probably the best in the nation at this point.” As far as health and environment go, she said, the agreements protect both.
Critics say they are particularly concerned about a stipulation that appears to block all future city oversight. That language says the city “shall not protest, request a hearing, oppose, or object in any forum to any permits, applications, or similarly related approvals related to the Operator’s oil and gas operations or development of any new wells or well sites.” If they do, the companies have grounds to sue the city, Johnston says. In addition, the agreement states ConocoPhillips can fine Aurora $1,000 a day for delays in its schedule.
A Facebook group called Fracking Colorado has started an online petition calling for Aurora City Council to impose a six-month moratorium on oil and gas permits as the state’s regulatory agency completes its new rulemaking around the new law. It asks that the city follow seven different Colorado cities and counties that have imposed such temporary bans.