Colorado Supreme Court rejects local fracking bans
May 2, 2016
DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday struck down attempts by two cities to ban or delay fracking, a major victory for the oil and gas industry.
The court ruled that a ban on fracking in Longmont and a five-year moratorium in Fort Collins are invalid because they conflict with state law. State officials and the industry argued the state has the primary authority to regulate energy, not local governments.
The courts may not have the final say, however. Fracking critics hope to get at least five measures on the November ballot to amend the state Constitution to restrict the industry or allow local governments to do so.
The industry has said it will fight those proposals.
The cases before the Supreme Court were an outright ban on fracking approved by Longmont voters in 2012 and the moratorium imposed by Fort Collins voters in 2013. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association sued both cities and lower courts threw out the ban and moratorium.
The cities appealed, and the cases were put on a fast track to the Supreme Court.
The oil and gas association "has always maintained that these bans on responsible oil and gas development are illegal, and we're pleased that today the Colorado Supreme Court has agreed with us," said Dan Haley, president of the group.
Fort Collins officials were reviewing the decision, spokeswoman Emily Wilmsen said. Longmont officials had no immediate comment.
In Garfield County, where a number of Battlement Mesa residents in particular have fought plans to drill within their residential boundaries, community organizer Emily Hornback with the Western Colorado Congress expressed disappointment but not surprise at the ruling.
"This is the latest in a string of disappointing decisions for people living with oil and gas development in their community," she said.
"Oil and gas is the only industry that is exempt from normal land use authority of local governments, and that just is not a fair deal," she said, holding up Garfield County's special planning process that was required of Ursa Resources' Battlement Mesa drilling as an example of what should be required.
"We think that should be standard practice, not just an exception to the rule in Colorado," Hornback said.
She added: "Over the past two years, we have seen agencies, task force appointees, legislators and other decision-makers kick the can down the road on this issue. The result is a lot of impacted people who feel that their governmental institutions are failing to protect their health and their property. It is not surprising that people feel like their only recourse is to take the issue to the voters in a ballot initiative.
"In the meantime, in Battlement Mesa, we await a decision from the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] under the new rules that were passed earlier this year. These permits are the first real test of the new rules and the COGCC process that was upheld today by the court. What they decide in Battlement Mesa will show if this process adequately protects communities from the many impacts of oil and gas when it is developed outside your back door.
"We will wait to see the result and how our piece of this puzzle fits into the larger state political picture."
The Colorado decision has no direct effect outside its borders because oil and gas regulation is largely left up to individual states. New York has banned fracking, while lawmakers in Texas and Oklahoma have blocked local governments from imposing bans. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a panel to study the issue.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has long been a contentious issue in Colorado, the nation's No. 7 energy-producing state.
Fracking injects a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack open formations and make it easier to recover oil and gas.
Combined with other drilling techniques, it opened up previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves and boosted the economy, although low oil and natural gas prices have led to widespread layoffs and a steep decline in drilling.
Critics worry about danger to the environment and public health from spills and leaks. Others say around-the-clock noise, lights and fumes from drilling rigs make their homes unlivable as oilfields overlap with growing communities.
The industry says fracking is safe and that drilling companies take steps to minimize the disturbances.
Colorado regulators approved new rules earlier this year intended to ease the conflicts by giving local governments the right to consult with energy companies on the location of multiple-well drilling sites and other big facilities.
But the rules generally don't allow governments to set their own regulations. Many critics of the industry say that's what is needed to protect property values, peace and quiet and public safety.
The industry said the new rules went too far.
The Legislature has mostly stayed out of the issue this year, waiting for the Supreme Court's decision.
This article includes material from the Post Independent staff.