The Denver Post: 04/17/2013
By John Hickenlooper
Through many years of operating brewpubs, I took pride in never going to court. It’s not that lawyers aren’t deserving of love, it’s just that we prefer to get things done without having to resort to the courts.
That was our philosophy in business and through nearly two terms as a mayor of Denver. It’s still our view in the governor’s office.
That’s why we didn’t take filing legal action against Longmont lightly.
We’re not surprised the decision made many people unhappy. At the same time, we agree with critics that regulating the oil and gas industry is not the “sole purview of the state.” Nor do we believe that the industry will not prosper if local governments have a say in limiting the impacts of development.
We’ve actually encouraged local governments to get more involved. We have newly dedicated staff with the specific purpose of building stronger relationships with local planners, and we’ve asked local governments to designate staff to work with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to improve regulation of the industry.
We also support agreements between local governments and individual operators that go beyond state regulations. We’ve seen this done successfully in several communities, including Gunnison, which has a dedicated oil and gas inspector through agreement with COGCC, and several jurisdictions including Routt and Rio Grande counties, Erie, and Mead, where locally negotiated conditions have become part of state drilling permits, enforceable by COGCC.
When local regulators attempt to prevent development and where there is no agreement with mineral owners, the state has two options: We can encourage collaboration, but when that fails we have little choice but to pursue legal action.
It is unconstitutional for governments, at any level, to take private property without compensation. So the state and local governments need to be careful not to do so. Also, local rules that conflict with state rules create an uneven patchwork of regulations that jeopardize the orderly development of mineral resources, a finding upheld in court rulings.
Oil and gas development, by its very nature, is unlike almost any other enterprise. Energy resources are deposited underground in ways that do not always comport with what might be occurring on the surface. For this reason, and the fact that mineral rights are a constitutionally protected property just like surface rights, locating oil and gas wells isn’t a simple matter of zoning.
Does this mean that property rights trump public health and safety? No. Our ultimate responsibility is to protect people, not property rights.
That’s why we have pushed more rule-making than any previous administration to establish regulations protecting the environment. Colorado’s rules are among the toughest in the nation, including a disclosure rule on fracking that the Environmental Defense Fund has called a national model. This year, we also passed rules expanding setback distances between oil and gas wells and occupied buildings (including schools and senior centers) and additional rules protecting groundwater.
COGCC is one of the few state agencies we have allowed to grow. In 2004, it had 35 employees. We are now up to 76, and lawmakers are poised to approve our request for additional field inspectors.
How we resolve these regulatory issues has significance beyond our own neighborhoods. We are pursuing an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy in Colorado that also reflects a popular slogan: “Think globally and act locally.”
Responsible development of domestic natural gas is helping to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change. It’s also helping create jobs. We should be able to realize the benefits of this development and still protect the health and safety of communities.
That has been our goal as an administration, and we look forward to working with local communities in achieving it.
John Hickenlooper is governor of Colorado.