Due to COVID-19 challenges, state oil and gas regulators are pausing the process when it comes to working on some new rules to comply with Senate Bill 181, a delay several western Colorado governments are welcoming.
But the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Wednesday didn’t agree with requests from others to have oil and gas permitting pause as well.
Senate Bill 181, passed last year, rewrote how oil and gas development is to be regulated in Colorado, and the COGCC has been working to revise its regulations to comply with it. A core part of the law changed the agency’s mission from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it, with a priority on protecting public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife.
Earlier this month it published draft rules specifically addressing this mission change. The draft rules cover things such as addressing cumulative impacts of oil and gas development, adopting processes for analyzing alternative locations for surface facilities, reforming the permit process and expanding public participation in proceedings.
It decided Wednesday to delay further action on those rules for now and revisit the matter in mid-April. Agency officials say the rulemaking process, which includes stakeholder involvement, is too important to occur in a virtual format rather than through face-to-face meetings. The commission on Wednesday met online due to the social-distancing requirements necessitated to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The commission also postponed until its June hearing a rulemaking to address well construction, testing and related issues.
The commission also took online public comments Wednesday.
Representatives from several area local governments, including Mesa, Rio Blanco and Delta counties, and communities such as Collbran, Rangely, Silt and Meeker, endorsed slowing down the rulemaking process as they deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I think that’s a really hopeful development for us,” Silt Town Administrator Jeff Layman said of the idea of a rulemaking pause.
Mesa Commissioner Rose Pugliese said slowing down the process is important for allowing good public engagement, and for local governments trying to keep economies alive “where we already are struggling and will continue to struggle after this pandemic.”
She and representatives of several western Colorado governments reiterated their objections to the idea of the COGCC imposing “one-size-fits-all” rules across Colorado rather than considering distinctions between rural and urban areas. Rio Blanco Commissioner Jeff Rector said such a statewide approach doesn’t work for his county, which relies economically on energy extraction.
“The medical side of (COVID-19) is very scary, the loss of life, but we need to think long-term about what we’re going to do for our economies,” he said.
But Betsy Leonard, who lives in Battlement Mesa, a community that has seen wells drilled in and around it, supported uniform statewide rules.
“A house in the west is the same as a house on the Front Range. Toxic chemicals are the same wherever they’re found,” she told the COGCC.
Leonard was among those who called for an oil and gas permitting pause if rulemaking is paused, an idea oil and gas commissioners didn’t embrace.
Said Commissioner Brenda Haun, “Whatever we can do to keep people working, keep the economy going as best we can, that’s what I support right now.”