Pittsburgh inspired Colo. town's fracking ban
Rod Brueske speaks to the Boulder County commissioners during a public hearing about oil and gas development at the Boulder County Courthouse in November.
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In a suburban Colorado town this fall, Michael Bellmont has been using the city of Pittsburgh as an inspiration and rallying cry.
The insurance agent-turned-activist struck out on the warpath against hydraulic fracturing, a process that was coming closer to his hometown of Longmont and one he had come to view as unregulated and risk laden.
He had read about the drilling ban approved 1,500 miles away in Pittsburgh in 2010. It left such an impression that he gave the Pennsylvania city a shout-out in the guitar tune he wrote about making sure "we'll have no frickin' frackin' in this town."
"I thought, by golly, if Pittsburgh can do it, we can do it too," Mr. Bellmont said in an interview last week.
He was right.
In last month's balloting, the initiative he worked on to prohibit hydraulic fracturing sailed to victory with support from about 60 percent of Longmont's voters.
Their approval turned a recently beefed-up set of local oil and gas drilling regulations -- which already had prompted a lawsuit from state environmental officials -- into an outright ban similar to Pittsburgh's.
Supporters cheered the result as providing residents with protections from potential air and water risks that they believed state and local government had failed to guarantee. Some nearby communities, including Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, in turn have begun overhauling their own rules for energy companies.
But state and industry officials prefer to keep drilling oversight powers mostly centralized, with both saying they're attempting to reach out to local towns that harbor concerns about the latest drilling technology.
"It's been a concern that we would see a patchwork of local regulations," said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. "While we want to police the industry well, we don't want them to necessarily pull up stakes and leave town. Having a system where you have 300 different sets of regulation would not be conducive."
That's an argument familiar in Pennsylvania, where the proliferation of strengthened local drilling rules -- in a state with roughly 2,600 municipalities -- has raised industry concerns as companies drill in the Marcellus Shale.
State lawmakers responded earlier this year by including a section in the bill now known as Act 13 to standardize local zoning rules. A set of mostly southwestern Pennsylvania towns with rules exceeding those standards then sued state government, with Commonwealth Court overturning part of those zoning standards in July.
Mineral extraction and its related regulations are nothing new to Colorado, which has seen plentiful activity in its western region in particular for decades.
But with the discovery several years ago that the Niobrara geologic formation's oil reserves could be accessed using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, extraction reignited in northeastern Colorado.
The region around Longmont, about 40 miles north of Denver, has grown in population since its historic gas wells were drilled. As towns there grew, the distance between suburban development and drilling areas shrank.
The Niobrara discovery also came as the 2010 anti-fracking documentary "Gasland" from HBO began to bring national attention to the process of extracting gas by shattering rock using water laced with sand and chemicals.
"This renewed or enhanced interest in region and more attention from activists, they bumped into each other," Mr. Hartman said.
Colorado state government significantly rewrote its drilling regulations in 2007, but last year officials began to hear concerns that the required setback distances -- which weren't altered in the 2007 changes -- would allow drilling too close to homes and schools.
The state now is amid its rule-making process to alter setbacks and adjust groundwater monitoring procedures, with more hearings this week on the setback proposal.
However, as state bureaucracy weaves and winds through hearings and revisions, some local governments aren't waiting around.
Longmont City Council in July approved an ordinance that prohibits drilling activity in residential areas. Among other provisions, the ordinance also requires a 750-foot setback from homes or other occupied structures, compared with the state's 350-foot requirement, and certain groundwater monitoring procedures.
State officials threatened to sue if the ordinance passed, and after the 5-2 council vote, the oil and gas commission filed its legal brief.
Mr. Hartman described the lawsuit as a "highly unusual" step for the agency.
"We feel that if this is the direction that this is going, if cities want to develop extremely stringent regulations, we need the court to guide us," he said.
When the nearby town of Greeley attempted to ban drilling in the 1990s, the Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the state's overriding authority to regulate the industry.
Still, Colorado's local governments generally have strong home-rule powers, said Bruce Kramer, a retired Texas Tech law professor and adjunct faculty at the University of Colorado Law School.
"Predicting how a court is going to interpret issues of pre-emption is difficult at best," Mr. Kramer said.
The pending litigation against Longmont focuses on the city ordinance, not the citizen initiative that was sparked from the growing frustrations of activists like Mr. Bellmont and his group, Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont.
Hundreds of volunteers rallied and knocked on doors to spread the word about the proposed ban, as drillers reportedly spent $500,000 on their own efforts to defeat it.
Activists also drew headlines when Gov. John Hickenlooper participated in a forum there this fall, drawing a crowd of angry protestors shouting that he should end fracking in Colorado.
Mr. Bellmont said that while at first he was supportive of the effort to change local setbacks, that goal shifted to a ban as he read more about potential health hazards from fracking.
"City government was not going to respond to their duty to protect citizens from a health mandate," Mr. Bellmont said. "We realized there was no alternative but for the citizens to take the matter into their own hands."
Despite the outspoken opposition in Longmont, state officials and industry representatives say the town's reaction to increased activity has been the exception, not the norm.
Officials point to success in their effort to designate local government contacts in each town to aid in disseminating information about wellpad accidents or other site activity.
For the industry's part, the state trade group has been working with Colorado Springs on its draft drilling rules and is reaching out to a number of other municipalities.
"We are very disappointed in the outcome of the Longmont vote," said Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "While not every jurisdiction has energy resources, those that do should ponder the burdens they are placing on other communities when they refuse to develop the resources we all rely upon."
The initiative vote leaves Longmont vulnerable to another lawsuit, though not one from state officials, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Mr. Hickenlooper told an industry conference Thursday that the state may lack standing to sue over the initiative but that it would support potential legal challenges made by drillers.
The regulatory upheaval and state litigation hasn't been what Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs expected when he was elected 13 months ago to lead the community of 87,000.
He's pledged to defend both the ordinance and the initiative's changes to the city charter. He even speaks positively of Mr. Hickenlooper, saying he believes the governor is trying to do his best when it comes to industry activity and their dispute.
"You've got to respect the democratic process," Mr. Coombs said. "It's a pretty crazy world. I'm proud of their willingness to step up and get engaged."
First Published December 9, 2012 12:24 am