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Longmont Battles With State Over Hydraulic Fracturing

The battle over a community’s ability to regulate natural-gas drilling is headed to a Boulder County courtroom.

KUNC’s Emily Boyer spoke with Boulder County Business Report publisher Chris Wood about legal action taken by a state agency.

Boyer: Chris, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) this week filedsuit [.pdf] against the city of Longmont over a recently passed ordinance regulating hydraulic fracturing. What exactly did Longmont do that upset the commission?

Wood:Specifically, the city passed an ordinance that bans drilling in residential areas and requires companies to use directional drilling and consolidate drilling operations. For its part, the commission simply believes that Longmont does not have the power to regulate drilling in that way, that such powers are its exclusive domain under state law.

Commission members also believe the allowing Longmont to proceed would create a patchwork of regulations around the state, making it confusing for drillers and hampering job growth.

Boyer:We’ve been hearing a lot about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in Colorado in recent years with the boom in drilling activity. What about this process has towns like Longmont concerned?

Wood:Fracking is essentially a process of injecting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock, which allows more oil and gas to be extracted. Much of our region sits atop the vast Niobrara formation where a lot of this drilling occurs.

Communities such as Longmont are concerned about the process, and whether the chemicals that are used in the fracking process are safe. They also are having to deal with issues of noise, traffic and health.

Boyer:How are other jurisdictions in the Boulder Valley responding to these concerns, and have they able to avoid the commission’s wrath?

Wood:So far, they have. Erie, for example, is working directly with natural-gas companies, trying to commit them to regulations that are more stringent than what the state requires. But the town is avoiding regulating what occurs below the surface, which is the state’s purview. The city has limited truck traffic, and it wants gas companies to use technology that keeps volatile compounds from entering the atmosphere.

Boulder County itself is updating is land-use code and has placed a moratorium on new permits until next February. The city and county of Broomfield so far hasn’t taken any action, but officials there say they’re watching what occurs in other communities.

Boyer:This all seems to boil down to what a community is able to regulate. Is it simply a matter of the state having authority below ground and cities and counties controlling what occurs above the ground?

Wood:That’s one way to look at it. Cities have a right to regulate noise, traffic, fencing and land-use policies. But the state is the authority that regulates what goes on under ground. But if a city or county creates above-ground regulations that the state believes are aimed strictly at limiting or stopping drilling, it can override municipal ordinances. So the state has a lot of power here.

Boyer:Chris Wood is the publisher of the Boulder County Business Report.

My journalism career started in college when I worked as a reporter and Weekend Edition host for WEKU-FM, an NPR member station in Richmond, KY. I graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a B.A. in broadcast journalism.
Boulder County Business Report publisher Chris Wood helped create the Northern Colorado Business Report in 1995. He previously served as managing editor of the Denver Business Journal. Chris discusses regional business and economic issues in Boulder County every other Thursday at 5:35 and 7:35 during Morning Edition.
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