Our View: Oil, gas rules to live by — for now
January 15, 2013
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's new rules for energy drilling represent progress in the contentious debate between encouraging domestic oil production and protecting the environment and health of Colorado residents, but those rules fall short of addressing the more significant battle being waged between state and local governments.
Until there is resolution — likely in the form of a court ruling — regarding who has the ultimate jurisdiction to regulate the energy industry and its oil and gas exploration projects in counties and cities across Colorado, the new rules approved by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will be of debatable consequence. That's because local governments, including Routt County's, will continue to place their own conditions on oil and gas drilling using the argument that they ultimately are responsible for protecting the environment, health and public safety of the land and residents within their borders.
While we've supported the Routt County Board of Commissioners' stance to date on oil and gas exploration here, we also recognize the significance of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's new rules. Resulting from a special rule-making process that stemmed from growing unrest in many areas of the state about what some perceive to be a lack of strong state regulations and the resources to monitor and enforce them, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved several noteworthy changes to existing rules. That's a big step for an agency viewed as too pro-industry by many with an interest in the growth of the energy industry in Colorado.
One of the new rules involves setbacks, the mandatory minimum distance between a drilling site and occupied commercial or residential buildings. The old regulations stipulated setbacks of 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas. The new regulation calls for a blanket setback of 500 feet. It falls short of the 1,000 feet urged by environmentalists, but it exceeds the setback pushed by the industry as well as farmers and homebuilders, among others.
A second rule change of particular interest locally involves groundwater-quality monitoring, which has been a point of contention between the Board of Commissioners and Quicksilver Resources here in Routt County. For the first time, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is poised to require energy operators to test groundwater quality before and after drilling operations. Colorado would be the first state in the country to mandate such testing, but it still doesn't go as far as some communities and environmentalists would like. For that matter, the industry is none too happy with the rule, either.
There always will be discord between energy companies and environmentalists regarding drilling operations and their impact on air and water quality as well as public health. And as we've seen locally, there's also concern from property rights owners about their ability to capitalize on the potentially lucrative minerals beneath their land. The most recent rule-making process undertaken by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission certainly doesn't eliminate the discord, but it does move the state's regulatory agency toward a better balance of acknowledging public sentiment and concerns while still encouraging responsible energy development.