Boulder versus Coffman battle over drilling comes to state Senate

Author: John Tomasic - February 10, 2017 - Updated: February 10, 2017

Road sign in Greeley, Colorado. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
Road sign in Greeley, Colorado. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

Friday February 10 was the deadline Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman gave Boulder County to lift its moratorium on new oil and gas drilling projects. That Friday is here. It was never going to pass without resistance and, for now, the resistance is building.

On Thursday, Coffman indicated she is planning to sue the county and the county’s lawyers indicated that they plan to defend the drilling moratorium in court.

It happened that Friday was also the day the state Senate voted on a budget appropriation that would send funds to Coffman’s office.

Boulder County’s senators, Matt Jones, D-Louisville, and Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, voted against the appropriation.

The two men made a statement against the threatened lawsuit with their floor votes and then again in quotes they released after the action in the Senate chamber.

“If the Attorney General is going to use taxpayer money to sue taxpayers, we cannot in good conscience vote ‘Yes’ on a supplemental budget appropriation to the Attorney General’s department,” said Fenberg.

“By sending her letter threatening a local community for just trying to protects its families health, safety, and property, the Attorney General is using the power of her office, and money belonging to the taxpayers, to threaten legal action against some of those very same taxpayers,” said Jones. “What is worse, the Attorney General is threatening this local community with legal action at the behest of oil and gas companies.”

Coffman has been resolute.

“Plain and simple, Boulder County is violating state law and has left my office with no option other than to enforce the law,” she said in a statement sent to the Denver Post. “It would be patently unfair for some local governments to be forced to comply with state law while allowing Boulder to continue with its illegal moratorium.”

Boulder has approved bans on new drilling in the county for the last five years. One temporary ban has followed another while legal disputes around local regulations on drilling played out in state courts.

In a blow to communities across the northern Front Range, which is home to intensified drilling spurred by new hydraulic fracturing practices, the state supreme court last May ruled that local governments had no authority to regulate drilling because that job fell solely to state officials.

The ruling represented a major win for the oil and gas industry.

Boulder County commissioners acting in December had extended the most recent ban until May, seeking more time to work out issues surrounding a resumption of new drilling; they planned to look at updating related local finance, nuisance and environmental rules and requirements.

The issue of renewing oil and gas development is of passionate concern in the environmentally conscious and heavily clean-energy supporting county.

It came up early during a packed town hall held in Boulder a little more than a week ago, when close to 500 residents filled a local warehouse craft brewery as Fenberg and Democratic Reps. KC Becker and Edie Hooton fielded questions over the course of hours.

“The attorney general isn’t recognizing the feelings expressed by residents all across the Front Range,” said Becker, who is an environmental lawyer and serves as House Majority Leader at the Capitol.

“Look, this is someone who sued the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. She is using our tax dollars to defend the oil and gas industry,” said Hooton. The crowd clapped and shouted in response. “Last week there was an enormous [oil] spill in Weld County. What has the state done in response? I’m just putting that out there.”

Hooton was referring to the Anadarko Petroleum spill near Hudson that spewed at least 28,000 gallons of oil, gas and drilling waste over thousands of feet and forced road closures over two days.

“Coffman jumped the gun. The county has been following a process,” Fenberg told the crowd. “She knew that. This threatened suit was meant to make a political statement. She’s probably getting ready to run for another office, but I think she’ll find this topic is not as partisan an issue as it might have once been, that it’s not as safe a political topic anymore. People don’t want industrial activity sited next to their homes and their kids’ schools.”

The votes cast by Jones and Fenberg on Friday didn’t stop the appropriation from passing.

Coffman is confident the law is on her side and that she’ll win in court.

Political wonks have been waiting for Coffman to announce her bid for governor any day.

The oil and gas lobby has at least several fortunes in political money to spend.

The lawsuit against Boulder could be making news through Election Day in 2018.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.