In light of recent gas patch events, Boulder casts Coffman court case as absurd

Author: John Tomasic - April 27, 2017 - Updated: April 27, 2017

(AP/Ed Andrieski)
(AP/Ed Andrieski)

Boulder County’s moratorium on new oil and gas drilling expires in three days — but the lawsuit seeking to lift that moratorium will continue, for now.

On Wednesday, Boulder District Judge Norma Sierra denied the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed early in the year by state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and later joined by the oil and gas industry.

Coffman argued in the suit that Boulder was effectively banning drilling by putting in place moratoria on new drilling and then extending the moratoria time and again. Coffman pointed out that Colorado courts had ruled that local bans on drilling were illegal because oil and gas industry regulation fell overwhelmingly to the state.

In a statement sent out later in the day, Boulder County commissioners underlined what they feel is an absurd thread running through the lawsuit and the judge’s Wednesday ruling.

The commissioners pointed out that the judge gave them 14 days to file a response to arguments made by Coffman and drilling companies — but that is 11 days after the moratorium will be lifted and replaced by rules formulated over the spring that will apply to new drilling operations.

“Although the county commissioners announced at a public meeting on April 25 that they did not intend to extend the moratorium beyond May 1… the court determined that it was ‘beyond the court’s authority to speculate as to what may occur on May 1, 2017,’” the commissioners wrote in a Thursday afternoon statement.

The commissioners added that it seemed clear to them that, should the case continue, Judge Sierra would ultimately rule against the power of local authorities to put in place extended moratoria.

“As we’ve seen from prior cases, it is always an uphill battle when local governments are fighting against the oil and gas industry,” said David Hughes, Deputy County Attorney. “The commissioners have done all they can as allowed by law on the moratorium front.” 

Judge Sierra’s ruling came on the same day Anadarko Petroleum announced it was shutting down 3,000 wells in northeast Colorado — the Front Range gas patch area that includes Boulder County. The company was acting in response to a home explosion that killed two men in Firestone, 20 miles east of Boulder. There is no evidence linking the explosion to oil and gas drilling activity, but the home in the heavily drilled area was sited just 170 feet from a 24-year-old oil and gas vertical well.

Shutting down that many wells as a precautionary measure is a first-of-its-kind move by a drilling company in state history, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore told reporters during a charged press conference Thursday.

The Boulder commissioners, responding to the explosion in Firestone, called on oil and gas operators in the county to follow Anadarko’s lead and shut down vertical wells.

“The tragic home explosion in Firestone last week is just another illustration of how important it is that we continue to work to protect the health and safety of residents on all fronts available to us, even if the moratorium option is not an available tool from a legal standpoint,” the commission wrote.

“Colorado counties and cities have their hands tied by the state in prohibiting the highly industrial use of oil and gas development near residential areas. We are given too limited a regulatory role as compared to other similar uses, which is why it is so important for the county and our residents to continue to push the state for adequate local authority.” 

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

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