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Coverage of energy that moves beyond polarized arguments and emotional debate to explore the points of tension, the tradeoffs and opportunities, and the very human consequences of energy policy, production, use and innovation.Inside Energy is a collaboration of seven public media outlets in the nation's energy epicenter: Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota.

The Debate Continues For Colorado's Latest Draft Oil And Gas Regs

Dan Boyce
Inside Energy

The goal of Gov. John Hickenlooper's Oil and Gas Task Force was to address the duel concerns that drilling operations are too close to homes and that local governments don't have enough say in the process. The state's regulatory body, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, is now considering new rules, which were born from the task force's work, looking at giving local governments more input when it comes to energy development.

As the COGCC settles in for two November public hearings on the draft proposals, critics charge that the original task force failed in their mission.

There were nine recommendations that came out of the task force, but only two require actual changes to state regulations on the siting of oil and gas facilities. One requires companies to register in the communities where they operate, so cities can keep track, and the second says companies have to reach out to those communities and consult in good faith about finding the best placement for a large oil and gas facility 90 days before applying to build it.

If communities and companies cannot reach a consensus, the project would go to a public hearing before the oil and gas commission. That is different from the current process, which just requires an administrative approval of the company's drilling permit. But that new rule only applies to large facilities in dense areas, either with 22 buildings surrounding a well or 11 buildings on one side. In the last couple of years, out of 1,700 projects approved by the state, only 13 meet those criteria.

"More than 99 percent of oil and gas locations do not fit this very narrow limitation," said Matt Sura, a task force member and attorney who represents local governments and individuals in disputes with oil and gas companies.

But a lot more projects are close to a couple of homes, or a school or a park.

"All of those areas don't receive any of this additional protection," he said.

"The system works for most of the people most of the time."

These recommendations also do not increase the distance drilling operations would have to be from homes, which Sura says was one of the reasons the task force was convened in the first place.

"Without addressing those core concerns we're gonna be right back in the same place in the matter of a year or two," he said.

Oil company Anadarko was also represented on the task force and isn't interested in making the proposed rules any stronger than they are now.

"We at Anadarko have made it a priority to work with local communities as we plan development and we're going to continue to do that wherever we operate," said Public Affairs Manager Robin Olsen.

Producers feel they did give ground to local governments through the task force process, and say the scope of the rules the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is considering represent a compromise all the stakeholders could live with.

"Undermining that process isn't in the spirit of good faith," Olsen said.

At his office at the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, director Matt Lepore dropped a stuffed three-ring binder on a table in his office.

"These are all the pre-hearing statements that have been submitted by the parties," he said, flipping through the pages containing comments by those who would be affected by the proposed rules.

Lepore said he understands how communities staring down oil rigs may still be frustrated.

"They're used to their neighborhood the way it is and they like their neighborhood the way it is," he said.

But, the state constitution guarantees owners of mineral rights the authority to develop those minerals. For Lepore, these rules are bringing the state closer to balancing concerns of citizens and oil and gas companies.

"The system works for most of the people most of the time," Lepore said.

However, the binder on Lepore's desk is full of statements from those who still do not think the system is working. The Oil and Gas Commission will listen to two full days of hearings on the rules Nov. 16-17, 2015. They are likely to vote on adopting them Dec. 7.

Dan Boyce moved to the Inside Energy team at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2014, after five years of television and radio reporting in his home state of Montana. In his most recent role as Montana Public Radio’s Capitol Bureau Chief, Dan produced daily stories on state politics and government.
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