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Why Cities Can't Ban Oil And Gas Drilling In Colorado

Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Fracking trucks at a drill site in Colorado.

The conflict over oil and gas drilling -- as well as hydraulic fracturing -- has led to multiple protests, votes and court decisions in Colorado. Most recently, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman began proceedings to sue Boulder County over its lack of new drilling permits.

But the history of oil and gas development and regulation in Colorado is a long one. Here’s how we got to where we are today.

In 1970, a natural gas and oil-rich geological formation was discovered, sitting under much of northeast Colorado. The Wattenberg field is primarily located under Weld and Adams counties, but a portion of it is also found on the eastern edge of Boulder County.

After the discovery, lots of drilling took place -- and many residents weren’t happy about it. In the late 1980s Greeley voters tried to ban drilling within the city limits. That 1992 case, Voss v. Lundvall Bros, Inc., went to the state Supreme Court. The justices overturned the ban, citing an overriding state interest in oil and gas development.

Twenty years went by and markets fluctuated, technology improved and Colorado once again found itself in a drilling boom. The state also experienced a huge population increase. Many municipalities along the Front Range passed moratoriums, meaning they wouldn’t issue drilling permits for a certain amount of time while others enacted outright bans. While the Voss decision left some room for cities to regulate oil and gas development as long as their rules didn’t clash with state law, there was still a legal gray area regarding moratoriums and how much control local municipalities had.

An oil and gas task force was convened by Gov. John Hickenlooper to mitigate the impacts of drilling in populated areas. The task force came up withtwo rules. One related to defining a large facility within an urban mitigation area. The other rule mandated better communication between energy operators and the planning departments of local governments. Those rules were adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulatory arm of the industry.

Issued on the same day in 2016, two state Supreme Court cases struck down both Longmont’s voter approved fracking ban, and Fort Collins five year moratorium. The court weighed several factors in making its decisions, such as whether oil and gas drilling is a statewide interest, finally determining "that the need for statewide uniformity favors the state’s interest in regulating fracking."

Many people were frustrated by the court’s decisions, and tried to get two anti-fracking initiatives on the November 2016 ballot -- but they failed to get enough valid signatures.

After the 2016 state Supreme Court cases, municipalities rescinded their bans and moratoriums, including Boulder County. However, county commissioners enacted shorter-term moratoriums. The most recent was passed in December 2016 and set to expire May 1, 2017. Commissioners said they needed that time to craft regulations to protect the environment and to keep pace with updated technology and larger well pads.

In response, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffmanfiled suit against the county after it hadn’t issued new drilling permits for five years, a length of time she felt was significant due to the Fort Collins case.

The county has until March 6 to respond to the attorney general’s suit.

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