Northwest Colorado citizens groups track oil, gas ballot initiatives

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— The process of evaluating and approving oil well drilling permits in Routt County has settled, this year, into a phase of predictability with the Routt County commissioners expressing confidence that a lengthy set of local conditions of approval in place to ensure local land use values are protected. The commissioners received only brief public comment in favor of the new Southwestern Energy well June 10 before voting unanimously to approve it.

Oil & gas issues in Routt County

But the relatively routine state of oil well permit hearings here this year doesn’t mean a new round of debate at the state level won’t pull Northwest Colorado back into a broader discussion.

Two ballot initiatives that would seek a pair of constitutional amendments in the November election have been cleared for signature gathering by the Colorado Supreme Court. One, Initiative 88, dramatically would increase the distance wells must be set back from homes, from the current 500 feet to 2,000 feet.

And the second, Initiative 92, would give ultimate authority over permitting oil wells to local jurisdictions.

Initiatives 88 and 92 are just two among 11 similar initiatives seeking a path to the voters this summer.

Additionally, Gov. John Hickenlooper has signaled he might call the Legislature back into special session this summer to consider a new law intended to head off the initiatives. It is being characterized as a bill that would give more local control over oil and gas production, but it apparently involves significantly less control than the language in the ballot initiative promises. That effort has been joined by Andarko, one of the largest energy companies doing work in Colorado.

The Denver Post reported this month that U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, has staked out positions of support for both of the amendments as well as for the governor’s bill. The Post reports that Polis is backing 88 and 92, but he would withdraw his support of the ballot measures if compromise legislation can be passed.

However, as recently as June 9, The Colorado Independent reported that the chances of a special session seem dim in part because backers of the various initiatives are labeling it as not being strong enough.

A couple of citizens groups in Northwest Colorado, the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley and Citizens Supporting Property Rights, are paying close attention.

The board of the Community Alliance sent a letter to state House Majority Leader Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, on June 12, expressing its support for the governor’s bill.

Signed by Community Alliance board member Rodger Steen on behalf of his fellow board members Paul Stettner, Rich Levy and Jack White, the letter is careful to say that their organization continues to remain neutral regarding “the desirability of developing the petroleum resource” but identifies with the desire of local jurisdictions to have influence over how drilling in their backyards affects concerns ranging from tourism to noise, night lighting and environmental qualities.

“Our counties can address these few impacts of local concern accepting that most of the requirements of the present COGCC (Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission) rules will remain in effect,” the letter asserts.

In a conversation with Steamboat Today on the eve of the letter’s release, Steen said the Community Alliance thinks that through the finalization of revised conditions of oil and gas well approval at the Routt County level, and significant changes to state regulations concerning air pollution emissions from well pads, the majority of its concerns have been addressed. Steen acknowledged that the Community Alliance is not focused on preventing hydraulic fracturing of oil wells in the Yampa Valley and has concluded it is too small an organization to bring about change on that front.

Amy Williams, a frequent spokeswoman for the Routt County-based Citizens Suppoting Property Rights, which advocates for unfettered energy exploration, said she “appreciates” that the Community Alliance has reached the stage of, as she put it, advocating for energy industry best practices to be adhered to in Northwest Colorado as a realistic goal.

She characterized Initiative 88 as a veiled attempt to cut back or eliminate energy drilling.

“Jared Polis is behaving badly as a representative of the state by promoting a ban in the form of an easy-to-sell setback. It’s so much more complicated than that,” Williams said.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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