One size fits all for gas drilling, until it doesn’t

The whiplash must be painful. 

When Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced last Friday a proposal to require public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells drilled on public lands, the industry was quick to react.

“BLM’s proposed regulations, which would mandate one-size-fits-all regulations on well construction and hydraulic fracturing operations on these lands, are redundant, ” Barry Russell, CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, intoned.  “They will undoubtedly insert an unnecessary layer of rigidity into the permitting and development process.”

Never mind that the industry itself supports a form of Russell’s “unnecessary” one-size-fits-all regulations here in Colorado.

As I wrote this column, a controversial tax proposal aimed at stifling local opposition to oil and gas drilling was nearing a decision in the Colorado House. The measure would take severance tax payments from local governments that delay or prevent drilling.

The bill was introduced after state energy regulators clashed with county and municipal governments that have put moratoriums on drilling in certain areas or tried to set regulations beyond what the state requires. The two sides recently brokered an agreement to increase communication but not seek additional legislation. However, a few Republican lawmakers have gone ahead with measures aimed at settling the question.

One of the more controversial proposals to make its way through the Colorado Legislature this session has been an attempt by industry supporters to take severance tax revenues away from local communities that attempt to regulate drilling, as allowed in limited form under state law.

Even though state regulators and local governments reached an agreement earlier this year to cooperate in efforts to deal with public concerns, going so far as to allow certified local inspectors to enforce state rules, Republican lawmakers went ahead and introduced the punitive legislation anyway.

One-size-fits-all, apparently, is okay at the state level but not if the feds do it. And lawmakers who usually bellow “local control” when there’s any attempt to overlay statewide regulatory structures on most issues seem, in this and other selected instances, anxious to rewrite the definition of “local control” to mean “control the locals.”

Despite many complaints, hydraulic fracturing and other contentious practices such as setbacks from dwellings didn’t get much traction when drilling activity was primarily a Western Slope issue occurring in mostly rural areas. But when drilling began occurring near Front Range urban areas, the feces predictably began to hit the oscillating blade. As an example, the Longmont City Council is set to consider a set of local drilling rules at its meeting tonight, just a few weeks before its moratorium on drilling is set to expire.

But the impact of legislative attempts to punish local governments that seek to use their limited powers to regulate drilling practices doesn’t just impact Front Range municipalities. It could hit very close to home.

A few years ago, encouraged by more than 4,000 signatures on petitions supporting a watershed ordinance, the Grand Junction City Council, despite stiff opposition from the industry, BLM and U.S. Forest Service, enacted local rules similar to those adopted over the years by Palisade, Rifle and nearly 50 other Colorado communities. It’s a step allowed under a state law that grants local powers, albeit very limited and specific, to regulate drilling and other activities with the potential to harm municipal water supplies.

With leasing and drilling activity now proposed in local watersheds, it’s not hard to imagine a delay or two while Palisade or Grand Junction work with the industry to take steps to protect our drinking water.  Under the punitive legislation proposed, that could mean the two communities, while attempting to act in the long-term interests of their citizens, could find their share of severance tax revenues withheld.

What’s puzzling is the history of these issues would seem to forecast that the industry will ultimately accept the proposed new federal guidelines, just as they’ve done with virtually identical state standards adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Those industry spokespeople who bellow “local control” out of one side of their mouth and “control the locals” out of the other might consider the following quote:

“The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.” — Niccolo Machiavelli.

Jim Spehar was among Grand Junction City Council members who adopted the city’s watershed ordinance. Your comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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