Boulder County on AG Coffman lawsuit: A ‘special valentine’ to the drilling industry

Hydraulic fracturing site, Colorado (Phoenix Law via Flickr)

A drilling site in Colorado (Phoenix Law via Flickr)

Boulder County is hitting back at Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who filed suit Tuesday against the county seeking to force its commissioners to lift a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling projects.

“The Attorney General sent a special valentine to the oil and gas industry today by filing a lawsuit against Boulder County,” reads a statement from the county commissioners. “It’s a sweetheart deal for the oil and gas industry, but a massive waste of Coloradans’ tax dollars for the State to sue us on industry’s behalf, and we are prepared to defend our right to safeguard the health, safety, and wellbeing of our constituents.”

Boulder County Attorney Ben Pearlman told The Colorado Statesman on Monday that he is confident the law is on the county’s side. He said there is solid precedent in support of local limited-duration moratoria put in place while rules are being formulated. He said the county is continuing the process of formulating and approving drilling regulations to meet the challenge of present-day oil and gas extraction in the region.

He pointed out that county staff is presenting regulations for review at public meetings in March. The Moratorium on new drilling is scheduled to be lifted May 1.

“We still have regulations in place from before the recent large changes in the industry came into place,” he said. “What we’re seeing now from the industry is very different. We’ve also learned more over the last five years about threats to air and water quality related to today’s large (drilling) installations.”

Things have clearly changed with the industry.

Boulder County is one of a host of counties on the northern Front Range that has witnessed a drilling boom over the last decade tied to advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, technology that can free up minerals trapped miles deep in shale formations spread under the Colorado foot hills and plains.

Drillers have moved increasingly in from rural areas to ex-urban and suburban neighborhoods in the region. Some companies have come to specialize in setting up rigs in neighborhoods, sometimes near parks, homes and schools. Industrial truck traffic moves over local roads. Well pads that once would have hosted three or four wells now spread out like moon stations, 40 and 50 wells lined up in rows. Fracking towers stretch 125 feet, or 10 storeys, into the air. Drilling can go on nonstop for weeks or months or longer. Stadium-style lights shine through the night. Twenty-foot sound barrier walls block views. Large oil and fluid tanks sit permanently on site. All of which has meant resident complaints pile up.

The result has been a tug of war between local governments on one side and the drilling industry and state officials on the other.

Courts have consistently decided in favor of the industry. Indeed, Coffman has cited a recent state Supreme Court ruling that specifically outlawed local drilling bans put in place by voters.

In a letter sent to the county in January, Coffman demanded Boulder lift its moratorium, the latest in a series of temporary bans on drilling that go back to 2012. “There is reason to suspect the county will continue its pattern of extending its ‘temporary’ prohibition,” she wrote. “The county’s continuous five-year ban on oil and gas development violates state law.”

Boulder County state and federal lawmakers, all Democrats, have pushed back hard against Coffman, a Republican whom many suspect is readying a run for governor.

“We should all be outraged,” wrote U.S. Rep. Jared Polis in a statement on Tuesday. “The oil and gas industry is more than equipped to bring their own lawsuits, and I suspect they have opted not to sue Boulder County because they know Colorado law allows for a short term fracking moratorium. What the Attorney General has done today is a purely political waste of money, and it is not legally sound,” Polis said. “Cynthia Coffman is wasting taxpayer money trying to force Boulder residents to have fracking near our homes and schools.”

At a packed town hall last week, Boulder state Sen. Steve Fenberg and state Reps. KC Becker and Edie Hooton took turns fielding questions from angry residents.

“Coffman jumped the gun. The county has been following a process,” Fenberg told the crowd. “She knew that. This threatened suit was meant to make a political statement. She’s probably getting ready to run for another office, but I think she’ll find this topic is not as partisan an issue as it might have once been, that it’s not as safe a political topic anymore. People don’t want industrial activity sited next to their homes and their kids’ schools.”

Boulder County Attorney Pearlman said that pending applications to drill in Boulder include those submitted by Denver-based Extraction Oil and Gas. The company reportedly has submitted plans for several projects that each will host between 40 and 50 wells.

john@coloradostatesman.com

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