Boulder County commissioners to hold public hearing on oil, gas regulation updates

The Board of Boulder County Commissioners will host a virtual public hearing on the latest draft of proposed updates to the county’s regulations about oil and gas development in unincorporated parts of the county.

The latest draft of the new regulations would “provide for close scrutiny of all proposed oil and gas development and multiple opportunities for public input prior to any decision being made,” county staff said in a news release about Tuesday afternoon’s hearing.

However, commissioners will not take action on approving or requesting modifications. That decision is scheduled for a public meeting at 4 p.m. Dec. 3, though other meetings are set aside if more consideration is needed. Public comment will not be taken Dec. 3.

“For any new oil and gas development applications, these regulations will allow staff, the Parks and Open Space Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission and the Board of County Commissioners to consider site-specific circumstances and possible measures to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse impacts in determining whether to approve or deny a proposal,” staff said in its news release.

Under the proposed regulations, no oil or gas well pad could be located within 2,000 feet of any home,  educational facility, or child care center.

Staff has said the new rules would clarify “how and when applications for oil and gas operations will be denied” and would add a section about governing abandoned wells and pipelines.

The rules would update noise and odor control regulations and would require oil and gas permit applicants to submit what staff has said would be “numerous additional plans” for county review “to demonstrate protections for public health, safety, and welfare; and the environment and wildlife,” including new weed control and dust suppression plans, a photometric study, worker training requirements, a safety management plan, and “assessments and modeling of current and projected air quality.”

The county’s current and proposed oil and gas development regulations apply only to unincorporated parts of the county and not to locations within the boundaries of cities and towns in the county.

On Monday, county staff released its report to the Board of County Commissioners, along with the latest draft of its recommendations for the updated oil and gas regulations. They can be viewed via a link on Boulder County’s Oil and Gas Development web page, tinyurl.com/yd6rhjja.

Boulder County’s Planning Commission held a Nov. 9 public hearing on the proposed regulatory changes, with many of the more than 30 people calling into the planning panel’s virtual meeting to suggest even stricter rules than what the county’s Community Planning and Permitting Department staff has so far proposed.

On Nov. 10, Planning Commission members voted their unanimous approval of the proposed updates. The planning panel also recommended that the Board of County Commissioners approve and adopt the new rules crafted by county staff.

Several people calling into the Nov. 9 Planning Commission hearing argued for requiring even wider setbacks of oil and gas surface facilities from nearby homes, schools and child care facilities — at least 2,500 feet, rather than the 2,000 feet recommended by county staff. But the planning panel did not increase the proposed buffers in its recommendations for Board of County approval of the new rules.

Nor did the Planning Commission go along with calls for Boulder County to ignore Colorado courts’ rulings that have overturned or blocked fracking bans and to proceed with enacting its own prohibition against any future oil and gas development operations in unincorporated parts of the county, specifically banning the process of hydraulic fracturing to free up deep underground oil and gas deposits before drilling commences.

Staff wrote in its report to the Boulder County commissioners for next Tuesday’s meeting that it is “closely monitoring a lawsuit that examines local governments’ power to impose a fracking ban … for judicial guidance on this issue.”

On Nov. 1, Boulder County District Judge Judith LaBuda ruled against reinstatement of Longmont’s 2012 voter-approved ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas deposits within the city. Colorado Rising for Communities, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of two environmental activist groups — Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont and Food & Water Watch — has said it intends to appeal LaBuda’s ruling.

In the meantime, the county staff wrote that the county board “has directed staff to develop the strongest and most protective regulations possible to protect county residents and lands from the impacts of oil and gas development for use if necessary.”

Staff said the proposed regulations, besides including the 2,000-foot setback from homes and associated residential uses, schools and childcare centers, include “strong air quality provisions, including a leak detection and repair program, reporting requirements, and prompt repair of any discovered leaks.”

The updated rules would include “careful review, including the use of outside experts, of the impacts threatened by proposed development, including from air emissions, water use, potential contamination, noise, odor, light, dust, and traffic,” staff said, as well as “county review of operator-submitted emergency preparedness and response plans” and “enhanced and clarified reporting requirements for spills and accidents.”

The updated regulations would have “transportation standards requiring operations to mitigate any adverse impacts to roads and public infrastructure,” staff said, along with “protection of cultural and historic resources, recreational areas, scenic and rural character impacts, (and) agricultural land, including sensitive soils, wetlands and other natural resources.”

Boulder County would require “financial assurances in the form of financial status reporting, greatly expanded insurance coverage requirements, and requirements for financial securities,” such as bonds or letters of credit.”

There would be stricter regulations about the abandonment or decommissioning of wells and pipelines, waste-management requirements, and new provisions for enforcement —including inspections, fines and other penalties for violations.

Boulder County’s current oil and gas development regulations have been in place since March 2017, and no applications for new oil and gas development have been submitted to the county since then. A county moratorium on accepting and processing new oil and gas development and seismic testing is in place through Dec. 31 while the proposed regulation updates are under review. That moratorium was originally imposed in June 2018 and was extended this past March and again this past July.

Boulder County’s upcoming hearing follows this week’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approval of a broad swath of new rules seen as some of the strictest in the country.

The new state rules, approved unanimously by the state commission’s members, include what’s considered the strongest statewide well setback requirement: 2,000 feet between new wells and schools and homes. Colorado will join Alaska as the only other state to ban routine venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas wells and other equipment.

The state regulations, which will take effect Jan. 15, give more members of the public the right to challenge oil and gas operations they believe will harm them. They provide new protections for important wildlife habitat.


More information

Boulder County’s staff report and the latest draft of proposed updates to the county’s oil and gas regulations, as well as information about how to sign up to participate in the Board of County Commissioners’ 4 p.m. Dec. 1 public hearing on those regulations, can be viewed on the Boulder County Oil and Gas Development website, tinyurl.com/y3jeue26.

Comments also can be submitted prior to the hearing, by emailing them to oilgascomment@bouldercounty.org.

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