Routt County officials looking for clarity on energy regulation

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— Routt County commissioners said an oil and gas task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper in February did little to clarify local government’s role in regulating energy exploration alongside the state. But all three commissioners hold out hope that the task force was the beginning of a more substantial process.

“I don’t believe we’ve seen the end of this conversation,” Commissioner Doug Monger said Sunday. “I don’t believe (the task force) solved any of my heartburn about whether we’re pre-empted” by the state in regulating certain aspects of oil and gas exploration.

Recognizing that the relationship between the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, and local governments is being strained in some parts of the state as exploration edges closer to municipalities, Hickenlooper created a 12-member task force that included energy industry representatives, environmentalists and municipal leaders to address the issue. He specifically asked the group to help clarify regulatory authority over items such as noise abatement, air quality and setbacks.

Disputes between oil and gas operators and municipalities over how those things should be regulated have led to costly court cases in recent years as local governments have sought to better protect their constituents from the potential negative impacts of energy exploration.

But in its final report to the governor earlier this month, the task force didn’t specifically address those items or recommend the adoption of any new laws or rules that could prevent the disputes from ending up in court.

Instead, the group made eight recommendations that centered on increasing communication between the COGCC and local governments with the use of a local governmental designee, which Routt County already uses.

High risk, low reward

Mike King, chairman of the task force and the executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said Monday that instead of “picking winners and losers” and drawing lines between the regulatory authority of the state and local governments, the task force came up with a list of recommendations he thinks will address a wide range of issues.

“Whether it be emissions or setbacks or whatever the issues of concern are, we can plug it into this process we’ve created and give local elected officials far more input,” he said about utilizing a local governmental designee or using existing statutes to delegate inspections of oil wells. “I think that’s the beauty of the product we came up with.”

He said drawing jurisdiction lines between the state and local governments was a “high risk and low reward game” for the task force.

“There was some expectation that we would come together and say, ‘The county does this and the state does this,’ but it was apparent that was not likely the kind of dialogue that has the best chance to fix this,” King said.

Low expectations

Monger said he listened to all of the audio streams of the task force meetings that started March 9, and he appreciated the start of a statewide dialogue on the issue of regulatory authority. But his expectations for the task force were low from the outset.

“I really didn’t expect a lot out of (the task force) when it started. I thought it was set up to appease disenchanted community members, and I think it probably did that a little bit, but this (issue of clarity) is not going to go away.”

During testimony at one of the task force’s meetings, Monger said Routt County was looking to improve how it is notified about potential violations at its well sites. He said commissioners are sometimes notified of well violations by their constituents before they have a chance to learn about them from the COGCC.

“We were successful in having that aspect move on,” he said.

Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said the task force “got people to sit down and talk to each other about how better to cooperate,” but the group’s recommendations likely won’t have any immediate impact on Routt County.

“It’s always nice to have a process like that, but I hope it’s the beginning and not the end,” she said. “But again, with this issue of pre-emption, that can only be decided by a court of law, and we’ll see who prevails there.”

Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said she was disappointed the task force had a limited scope and a short timeline.

“I think the task force members were very sincere in what they were doing, and I think they had some good discussion,” she said. “It’s a good start. It’s just unfortunate the timeline was so short and they could not get into some of these issues that are so critical to our state, including air and water quality and setbacks.”

Getting technical

While oil and gas operators who work in Routt County last month hailed the creation of the task force as a positive step, local activists were skeptical of what it could accomplish.

After hearing the summary of the task force’s findings on Monday, Rodger Steen, co-chairman of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley’s oil and gas committee, wasn’t impressed.

He said he was disappointed the task force made no technical recommendations that would help mitigate energy exploration’s affect on air and water quality.

“The task force is useful in improving education, but it is not useful in limiting and decreasing impacts to air and water,” he said. “I consider what they’ve done is insulting to our intelligence. They’re telling us nothing more than we already knew.”

Moving forward

Despite not getting much clarity from the task force on the county’s regulatory authority, Stahoviak said Routt County is in the early stages of establishing a baseline for its air quality.

She said commissioners have applied to the COGCC for funding to install air quality monitors in west Routt County and in Steamboat Springs that would help create such a baseline.

Routt County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf said Monday that while five air monitors on the roof of Steamboat Springs’ downtown courthouse have monitored air for particulate matter since the early 1970s, the county does not have air sensors to monitor ozone and oil and gas emissions. He estimated the ozone sensors would cost $70,000 per site.

“Getting some monitoring at the western end of the county is critical, especially since we have more (energy) development there and in Moffat County,” Stahoviak said. “It would be nice to have a baseline right now so we can see how it’s going to impact us.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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