By Vincent Carroll
Boulder County this week became the latest jurisdiction in Colorado to defy state law in a bid to placate anti-fracking activists — or fractivists, as they are sometimes called — by extending a moratorium on applications for oil and gas development.
So the county’s original moratorium, now extended several times, has effectively become a drilling ban. And yet the state high court has ruled in the past that a city can’t outlaw drilling — an opinion the court is likely to stand by should it rule again.
Given the sound and fury over hydraulic fracturing during the past couple of years, you might suppose the list of rogue jurisdictions such as Boulder County was quite long. But you’d be wrong. According to government and industry officials I consulted, the list is neither long nor especially impressive.
Longmont qualifies as the most openly defiant. Its voters banned hydraulic fracturing within city limits last November, provoking two lawsuits that have yet to be resolved.
Fort Collins also “banned” fracking, but carved out an exemption for Prospect Energy, which happens to be the only operator within city limits and apparently the only company seeking to drill new wells.
In short, the ban in Fort Collins is largely symbolic.
The city of Boulder is committed to righteous symbolism, too, passing a one-year fracking moratorium earlier this month. But of course companies have not exactly been clamoring to drill in Boulder. As Doug Flanders of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association dryly noted, “The last producing well in the city of Boulder was plugged in 1999. … Currently, there are no pending or active permits” there.
So we have a ban with a big loophole in Fort Collins and three actual bans/moratoriums (one meaningless) in another county.
The larger story in Colorado — and especially along the Front Range — may in fact be how many communities have come to terms with the prospect of increased drilling without resorting to such histrionics. Cities and counties alike have adopted special review procedures for drilling applications, for example, and in some cases signed agreements with existing or would-be operators that local officials believe protect the health and safety of residents.
But in seeking those assurances, they haven’t tried to pre-empt the state’s regulatory prerogatives.
Boulder County, which is home to more than 300 active wells, actually seemed prepared to abide by legal precedent, too. Commissioners agreed to let a moratorium expire on June 10, while trying “to limit the numbers and locations of new well sites,” according to the Daily Camera. But those officials ultimately caved to fractivist pressure, claiming more study was required.
Rest assured that more study will be needed 18 months from now, too, when the latest moratorium expires.
Wealthy Boulder County is of course an energy-intensive enclave — big homes, cars and all the latest electronic devices. Moreover, as attorneys for Noble Energy noted in a statement submitted to the commission, the county’s electricity supplier, Xcel Energy, uses natural gas to produce about a third of its power. “With respect to oil,” the attorneys added, “Boulder commendably leads the nation in hybrid vehicles, but they account for only about 5,400 of its 227,000 registered vehicles.
“By extending the moratorium, the county would effectively mandate that the energy it consumes be produced elsewhere. But elsewhere inevitably involves someone else’s back yard.”
So the rest of Colorado, along with other states, will apparently have to do the heavy lifting for Boulder County. After all, someone has to keep all those iPads glowing.
E-mail Vincent Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@vcarrollDP