Crunch time nears for Colorado's task force report

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By Jeremy Johnson

FORT LUPTON — Fort Lupton Mayor Tommy Holton said the outcome of a straw vote taken by the governor’s oil and gas task force during an early February meeting suggests some panel members are still on the fence regarding a series of proposals that would provide more control over permitting of drilling operations for local governments.

Those regulations and any additional recommendations coming from the hand-picked, 21-person panel would require a two-thirds vote of approval before being sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk by the Feb. 27 deadline. The faux vote — which resulted in a tentative 14-7 approval — leaves no wiggle room for indecision.

Holton said he doesn’t care much either way: A “win” for more local control would still leave decisions in the hands of local governments like Fort Lupton, where they’ve long welcomed oil and gas with open arms. 

“(The proposed regulations) are just placating the public to a certain extent,” he said.

And if one member of that panel were to change their mind, that’s fine with Holton, too, as he’s in agreement with other leaders in Weld County and across the state who feel there’s enough regulations in place already.

“County commissioners already came out through (Colorado Counties Inc.) and said that, basically, we have enough rules to work within the system now,” Holton said, referring to a December 2014 meeting in which commissioners approved a resolution stating that sufficient regulatory measures already exist. 

Holton suggested any new regulations could be a moot point anyhow, since oil and gas companies aren’t paying much attention to those communities and municipalities intent on taking more control or banning development altogether.

“Most of the towns that are having problems with it are the towns that don’t really have any oil and gas at all — Boulder, Lafayette, Louisville, Fort Collins,” he said. “Frankly, they have hardly any production anyhow. There just isn’t a whole lot happening in their world … so I don’t take them seriously.”

Any regulatory actions are likely to have little effect in Weld County, where more than one-third of the state’s wells are already bored and development wanes in light of cheap oil prices.

“The majority of wells are right here in Weld,” Holton said, “and we’ve been dealing with this since the 1970s.”

“Plenty of rules now”

Hickenlooper first created the task force in September as a compromise to remove from the November ballot a series of initiatives that would have provided more local control and lengthened setback distances from the current state-regulated 500 feet to 2,000 feet.

But Holton, who supports oil and gas development by leasing his own land and driving a compressed natural gas-fueled truck, said debates over setbacks and local control are taking away from real concerns, such as safety at sites with multiple well bores. 

“The only thing I’d look at — and I’ve discussed it with the director (of Anadarko Petroleum) — is these multiple well pads,” Holton said, referring to pads that host multiple wells, sometimes as many as two dozen. “It’s all within a very small area … kind of like an offshore platform but on shore. So some of the safety precautions need to be looked at a little differently.”

Those regulations, Holton said, could be as simple as requirements for remote shutoff in case of fire or explosion. He added that, for companies like Anadarko, that technology already exists.

“There’s valves available below ground so that they can do that,” Holton said. “We’re definitely looking into it.” 

As for setbacks, Holton said he voted against the first recommendations and will continue to disagree with any additional regulations.

“I thought they were too much the first time and I voted against them,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter because the oil and gas people and the municipalities of Weld County have learned to work around whatever rules we must.

“But, personally, I think we’ve got plenty of rules now,” he added.

According to reports, even members of the task force itself think the barely-backed recommendations are without bite. For instance, while the task force currently backs a proposal requiring drillers to seek local approval before applying for state permits, state regulations would continue to trump local control in those matters. 

Another regulation currently backed by the task force would require early notifications to local governments for large, multi-well operations, and would require O&G operators to consider local comprehensive plans. In Fort Lupton, where operators include big names like Anadarko, Noble, Encana and Halliburton, collaboration has been ongoing, Holton said.

Some proposals such as better state oversight, increased COGCC staffing, and more comprehensive complaint hotlines were approved nearly unanimously, despite the fact that many on the task force know such recommendations will come with a considerable cost that would be passed on to an industry currently scaling back in light of cheap crude prices and decreased demand.

New county O&G liaison

As further proof of the county’s dedication to continued cooperation with oil and gas developers, Weld County in late January announced the hiring of a new “oil and gas liaison” who will help the county’s planning department manage new oil and gas development projects.

Troy Swain will serve Weld County by facilitating communication between the county and residents, according to Weld County public information officer Jennifer Finch. “Swain’s primary responsibility will be public outreach, which includes providing oil and gas information and being a technical resource and liaison for various stakeholders,” she said.

Swain previously worked for PDC Energy Inc., as well as Weld County’s Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“Troy’s knowledge about Weld County and the oil and gas industry makes him a great addition to our staff,” said Weld County Commissioner chairwoman Barbara Kirkmeyer. “The energy industry is an important industry for our county. It’s crucial the county has staff who can help answer the public’s questions, serve as a contact for the energy companies and look out for our county’s interests.”

According to Finch, 85 percent of oil and gas activity in 2014 took place in Weld County.

“The energy industry plays a significant role in Weld County,” said Tom Parko, director of planning services. “It not only boosts our economy, but also creates thousands of jobs. With the growth of the industry, we really needed someone who is familiar with both oil and gas and Weld County. Troy will be able to hit the ground running with this position.”

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or via email at jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.