State regulators on Monday kicked off marathon hearings on a landmark rewrite of oil and gas rules in Colorado, with early debate focusing on local versus state control over industry oversight.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission began considering draft rules implementing the heart of Senate Bill 181, the law passed last year overhauling how the industry operates in the state.

The agency previously has revised some rules based on the new law, addressing things such as how wells must be constructed and tested, and the safety of oil and gas flowlines leading from wells. But now it is taking on the bill’s key tenet, which is that the COGCC must prioritize protection of public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife over fostering of oil and gas development.

The commission also is looking to revise rules as required under the new law to consider cumulative impacts of oil and gas development and incorporate a process for analyzing possible alternative locations for proposed wells and other facilities.

The changes are being considered by a new, paid oil and gas commission, another change brought about by S.B. 181. That commission took over this summer.

Jeff Robbins, the commission’s chair and the agency’s former director, described Monday as a “historic day” as the agency launched its effort to write rules implementing the focal point of the new law.

“I truly and firmly believe that we’ve got this,” he said, adding that there “is remarkable agreement on most of the contentious issues before us.”

The local-control issue is emerging as a sticking point, however. The new law spells out a role local governments can play in regulating surface impacts of oil and gas development, but debate is arising over whether stricter state rules must apply if local rules are more relaxed. Some in the industry and in local governments such as on the Western Slope say local control means local governments should get to decide on how strict the rules have to be.

“One size (regulation) doesn’t fit all, folks. We’re over here trying to piece together an economy again and keep our tax base going,” Grand Junction Mayor Duke Wortmann told COGCC commissioners Monday.

He added, “We should be able to regulate ourselves over here, and I just push strongly for local control, less regulation.”

Supporters of local regulatory control in rural areas point in part to the cleaner air locally than on the Front Range.

But local air-quality activist Karen Sjoberg indicated that’s a reason for strong rules.

“We are not the Front Range and we need to be proactive so we do not end up with the same problems. I point to air pollution as a prime example of that,” she told the commission.

State Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, a sponsor of S.B. 181, said that under the measure state rules are intended to be a floor rather than ceiling for what’s required of companies, and those arguing otherwise are citing part of the bill language out of context.

“It’s critical that Senate Bill 181 be fully, effectively implemented as envisioned by sponsors,” he said.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, argued that nowhere in the legislative record on the bill does it say there only could be local regulations that suited the will of the Legislature or went beyond what the COGCC says.

“Now, 2020 has been challenging and maybe memories have been blurred,” she told the commission.

Oil and gas regulators are scheduled to hold hearings on some proposed rules to implement the new law through Sept. 11, and to take up related rulemakings later in September.

Other controversial aspects it will be addressing include setbacks between drilling operations and schools and homes.

Recommended for you