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Adams County becomes first to enact stricter local oil and gas regulations since passage of new state law

Commissioners adopt 1,000-foot residential setback rules, double the state’s mandate, in package of measures passed after 5 hours of public comment

The Adams County Commission during a lengthy public hearing about strengthened oil and gas regulations on Monday, Sept. 3, 2019. (Amanda K. Clark, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In the first test of new state regulations giving more control of oil and gas activity to local governments, Adams County’s commissioners on Tuesday adopted tough new rules including a 1,000-foot setback from residential areas, double the state mandated distance of 500 feet from occupied buildings.

Other measures passed by the five-person board include enhanced safety measures at well sites, the use of quieter and cleaner electric drilling equipment, and the identification of three alternative sites for each proposed oil and gas development that the county will consider with public health and safety in mind.

The Adams County decision came after more than five hours of public comment, including statements from residents, members of the oil and gas industry and environmental advocates.

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“We take pride in being able to find common sense solutions and to proceed reasonably, and I think that’s what we are doing today,” Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio said. “We are establishing significant improvements to protecting health, safety and welfare while also showing flexibility in areas where we saw a need for greater scrutiny and more work to be done.”  

But advocates for the oil and gas industry called the Adams County rules a de facto ban on drilling and said they push the limits of “necessary and reasonable” regulation described in Senate Bill 181, which this year rewrote Colorado rules for energy development.

“Senate Bill 181 granted local jurisdictions authority to regulate natural gas and oil development to an extent that is necessary and reasonable. Regrettably, many of the regulations of the code as adopted by Adams County today extend far beyond those which are necessary or reasonable,” Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said in a written statement that, among other things, raised concerns about the county’s air-quality monitoring requirements. “As drafted, a number of the provisions leave more questions than answers, which in turn provides a great deal of uncertainty for operators in the county.”

The commissioners also established a working group to address worker safety, which was brought up during public comment, and approved the addition of another full-time oil and gas inspector, which county officials say will ensure that every well gets inspected throughout the year. 

In the last 12 months 44 wells have been started in Adams County and 475 permits have been issued, largely in a corridor following E-470 north from Interstate 70, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Eva Henry, Steve O'Dorisio
Adams County Commissioner Steve O’Dorisio wipes his brow during a lengthy public hearing about strengthened oil and gas regulations. (Amanda K. Clark, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Commissioner O’Dorisio in his closing statement promised to address the cumulative impacts of poor air quality, explaining that “if one person changes a diaper on an airplane, it might not be a problem. But if in every other seat someone is changing a diaper on an airplane, then it’s a problem.

“The people that are living in these areas with two, three, four hundred wells around them have every right to ask us and the state about cumulative impacts,” he said.

In March, pending the approval of Senate Bill 181, the Adams County commissioners signed off on a six-month moratorium on any new oil and gas development. The moratorium expires on Sept. 20.

Eight other local governments, counties and municipalities have enacted moratoriums similar to the one in Adams County as they iron out new drilling rules under Senate Bill 181. At the same time, Weld County, where most Front Range drilling occurs, has demanded that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission take action on thousands of backlogged permits.

Senate Bill 181, which was signed in April by Gov. Jared Polis, mandates that oil and gas regulators considering new drilling operations take into account public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources. The bill is part of Gov. Polis’ push to address Colorado’s poor air quality. On Aug. 22, he signed an executive order asking the state Air Quality Council to push forward in prioritizing reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

At the Adams County public hearing, dozens of representatives from the oil and gas industry expressed their dissatisfaction with the regulations, noting that they were too strict, unnecessary and somewhat arbitrary. Other members of the community spoke out in support of the industry, saying that the oil and gas industry helps the state’s education system through taxes, and provides significant economic benefits and job opportunities.

“By approving these new, unreasonable regulations, Adams County commissioners ignored the will of their citizens and the overwhelming number of people who testified today against this unnecessary overreach,” Colorado Oil and Gas Association CEO Dan Haley said in a written statement after he testified at the public hearing.

Alexandria Edwards, a mother of three who lives in Commerce City, said the new stricter regulations are a step in the right direction. But she still thinks the state could be doing more to prioritize public safety and air quality.

“I respect the fact that people need to make a living and that there are people that work for oil and gas to feed their families. However, I don’t think that justifies the impact that has on me and my family having the right to live in a healthy and safe environment,” said Edwards, who attended the public hearing.

The decision by Adams County is part of Colorado’s emerging patchwork of regulations relating to oil and gas developments. The industry has long argued that state regulators should have the final say on oil and gas development, including well siting, arguing that the ability to conduct business is stifled by rules that vary from county to county.

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