LONGMONT — A fight is brewing over oil and gas development along the Front Range, with the most recent front opening in the city of Longmont; only in Longmont the battle is more over process than policy.
Last Tuesday, Longmont’s city council gave initial approval to a new 81-page ordinance that would, among other things, ban oil and gas development within city residential zones.
Opponents are pushing back, saying Longmont doesn’t have the power to unilaterally design its own regulatory regime. They argue that state law governs oil and gas development in Colorado and that the new regulations approved by the city council will lead to an expensive and losing lawsuit for the city.
Despite this opposition, the new regulations were approved by a vote of 5-2 at the last council meeting on May 8, and are up for a second reading tomorrow.
Prior to the vote, the Colorado Attorney General’s office weighed in, writing to the city council asking them to work through the Local Governmental Designee Program and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) instead.
The Attorney General’s letter to the city council also warned that a number of the draft regulations were in conflict with state law, which many observers say could lead to a lawsuit if the regulations are implemented.
“The Attorney General has said these rules are illegal,” said Tisha Schuller, President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA).
City Councilman Brian Bagley, who has spearheaded the push for the new rules, says he hopes it doesn’t come to a lawsuit, but that the council plans on moving forward with the new regulations anyway.
“I don’t want a lawsuit,” said Bagley. “I hope we don’t get sued.”
Bagley says his perception of the oil and gas debate was “very much shaped” by his experience on Governor Hickenlooper’s statewide oil and gas task force, which he has attacked as a “joke” and too close to the oil and gas industry.
Bagley was appointed to the task force by state Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont). He says he took that experience back with him to the city council, choosing to charge ahead without the state.
Councilwoman Katie Witt, who voted against the new rules, said at the meeting on May 8 that she is concerned about the way the regulations are being put in place, saying she wants to try working with the COGCC before unilaterally passing new regulations.
“I want to investigate that before putting something into our regulations that we absolutely know will cause trouble,” said Witt at the last City Council meeting, referencing the potential lawsuit.
The disagreement between the city council and its opponents revolves around two issues.
The first is a concern about a precedent that could end up allowing dozens, if not hundreds, of different rules and regulations for companies to operate around, creating an environment that is costly, confusing and unwelcome to businesses.
Governor Hickenlooper expressed that sentiment during his State of the State address this year, saying: “We intend to work with counties and municipalities to make sure we have appropriate regulation on oil and gas development, but recognize the state can’t have 64 or even more different sets of rules.”
Councilman Bagley told The Observer that there is no clear legal ruling when it comes to local governments making their own rules, only that local governments cannot ban oil and gas development outright. He called the new regulations “the Wild West” in the sense that there is no settled law when it comes to the issue of locally developed rules and regulations.
But critics argue that the sentiments expressed by Bagley underline a second concern about the city’s push, namely that local officials often lack the kind of specialized knowledge needed to responsibly regulate the industry.
COGA’s Schuller said on the Mike Rosen Show that “local regulators do not have the expertise” to deal with the technically complex issue of oil and gas development.
Councilman Bagley seemed to concur with the second point in an interview saying of the city council: “We’re clueless. We’ve never dealt with oil and gas before.” But he contended you don’t need oil and gas expertise to want to ban drilling in residential areas.
That’s where the argument seems to center — process. Should the state via the COGCC, which by mandate has experts from the industry as well as from environmental groups, decide on regulations, or should individual cities and municipalities have the ability to determine them?
There currently is a process in place — the local designee program referenced in the letter from the Attorney General’s office — for local governments to work with the COGCC and state. That entails a local government designee entering into negotiations with industry representatives which are managed and decided by the COGCC.
The oil and gas industry has complained that Longmont has so far refused to engage in negotiations with the COGCC.
Bagley admits they haven’t tried to go that route.
“The very fact that we haven’t engaged in the local designee process is proof that it’s broken,” said Bagley.
Many opponents of the plan expressed frustration with the lack of effort on the council’s part to work with the COGCC.
“Just work with the state,” pleaded Longmont resident Joel Champion, who said he is concerned a lawsuit could “cost the city of Longmont hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
COGA is hammering home that point this week with radio ads running on local stations comparing Longmont’s recent moves unfavorably to Boulder County, who currently has a moratorium on all drilling in place, saying both “took the bait” from environmental groups hoping to stop oil and gas development whatever it takes. The ad points out other communities have “partner[ed] with state regulators to protect our air and water without jeopardizing jobs and energy security.”
Other communities have come close to passing local ordinances like Longmont is proposing, such as Larimer County, but ultimately backed off, choosing to work with state regulators instead.
The battle in Longmont really boils down to whether or not policymakers believe that every city and county should have the authority to impose new layers of bureaucracy on top of existing state rules, or if Colorado would be better off with the certainty of a statewide standard.