By Steve Johnson
Larimer County Commissioner representing all of Larimer County
Colorado is a state born out of mining and resource extraction. The discovery of gold around 1859 set off a wave of settlement that led to statehood. Significant discoveries of molybdenum, silver, and uranium fueled additional growth.
Although the first oil well drilled in the Western U.S. was near Canon City in 1860, significant oil and gas production came later, with the discovery of oil in the Denver-Julesburg basin 1901 and the Wattenberg gas field northeast of Denver in 1960. Oil and gas production became an important industry in Colorado with our state having the 5th largest natural gas reserves in the nation and being the 7th largest producer of oil.
For most of the state’s history, extraction occurred far away from populated areas, and when it was near people, they generally were involved in the industry; environmental regulations were lax if any at all. As our state grew, more and more conflicts arose between urban areas and producers. Research in the health effects raised concerns about the health and safety risks involved with the extraction industry. Regulations evolved, were strengthened, and are evolving even today.
Traditionally, we’ve had a bifurcated system of oil and gas regulation in Colorado. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission [COGCC] regulated the operation of wells and local government was preempted from such regulation but did retain land use regulatory powers. That all changed significantly earlier this year when the legislature passed SB19-181.
This legislation made significant changes to oil and gas regulation in Colorado. It shifted the mission of the COGCC from “responsible, balanced development” to the prioritization of “public health, safety, welfare, and the environment.” It also provided local governments with increased regulatory authority and allowed those regulations to be more protective than forthcoming new state regulations, but not less restrictive.
As of today, Larimer County basically has no regulations over drilling, except for a road access permit. In response to SB19-181 and increasing concern from residents nearby drilling operations, the Board of Larimer County Commissioners appointed a diverse task force to make recommendations as to appropriate regulations for Larimer County. They have issued draft regulations that will be considered at public hearings in early 2020. You may view all of their work and submit your thoughts on their proposal at www.larimer.org/planning/oil-and-gas-regulations. We welcome and encourage your input.
Although there are relatively few drilling operations in Larimer County compared with our neighbors, there is a high level of interest and concern about this topic. We are also cognizant of the fact that Larimer County voters spoke on this topic in November of last year, voting 53% against Proposition 112 which would have increased setback requirements to 2,500 feet from wells. My sense is our voters want reasonable regulations that protect public health but recognize the importance of the energy industry to our state. The Board of Commissioners will consider the proposed regulations very carefully. We will also look at pending state regulation and the adequacy of planned monitoring activities by the state Health Department.