It’s a new day for the oil and gas industry and the many Coloradans it impacts.
That’s because new state regulations governing the industry go into effect Jan. 15, thanks to the work of the remade Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.
In the past, the commission was tasked with “fostering” oil and gas development, and it was dominated by representatives of the industry.
New, progressive legislation passed in 2019 (SB 19-181) authorized the commission to “regulate” the business instead – and the semantics represent a serious shift reflected in the new regulations.
La Plata County has played a historic role in that shift.
During the local gas boom of the San Juan Basin in the late 1980s and early 1990s, problems with noise, lights, dust, traffic and other surface issues led the county to pass the first local regulations of the industry in the state.
The oil and gas industry sued La Plata County; the case ended up in the state Supreme Court. The outcome was mixed: The court affirmed that the state held preemptive power over local governments, but it said smaller government entities also deserved a say.
Gas production in La Plata County started to decline around 2010, as natural gas prices dropped worldwide; today, little new drilling is occurring, though the county boasts about 3,400 wells, all of which will be subject to the new rules.
The 2020 regulations will give local governments control of oil and gas development, sans the state’s former preemptive role; alert local governments of any new permit applications; and require maintenance of older wells for safety.
The new rules also offer more transparency, making permit hearings open to the public and allowing individuals affected by potential drilling to request public hearings.
Other protections include a 2,000-foot setback for residences and schools and consideration of environmental and visual impacts. Oil and gas operators will have to avoid and minimize impacts on wildlife, including protecting big-game migration corridors.
The person at the helm of the COGCC is attorney Jeff Robbins of Durango, who has been deeply involved in the issue for decades, early on as an attorney representing La Plata County in its disputes with the industry.
In January 2019, newly elected Gov. Jared Polis asked Robbins to become the executive director of the COGCC, a job Robbins held until July 2020.
When the commission transitioned into a five-member group of full-time paid professionals, as mandated by the new legislation, the governor appointed Robbins commission chairman.
To get the new regulations written and gain the buy-in of stakeholders, the COGCC this year held 180 hours of Zoom hearings with 90 individual stakeholder representatives, ranging from oil and gas officials to conservation group directors.
Robbins called the process “an amazing journey” but noted wryly that none of the stakeholders is entirely happy with the outcome.
That’s because the resulting rules balance interests in a realistic way: They treat the oil and gas industry as the essential economic driver it is for the state while protecting the health and future of Coloradans and our environment.
Colorado now has one of the most protective regulatory systems for oil and gas in the nation, Robbins said. While the industry will face a more robust and lengthy permitting process, its new, single-permit pathway is also clearer.
We are cautiously optimistic that the new COGCC regulations – which required brokering a balance between wildly disparate interests – are a much-needed and timely step in the right direction.