Fracking ban in Boulder County sought by environmental groups for 2020 ballot

By: - July 23, 2020 2:54 pm

Fossil fuel extraction infrastructure is pictured northeast of Longmont, Colo., on June 24, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

A coalition of environmental and community groups is calling on the Boulder County Board of Commissioners to refer a measure to the 2020 ballot asking voters to approve a ban on oil and gas development — along with a small sales tax hike to defray the costs of a likely legal challenge.

A draft ballot measure proposed by activist group 350 Colorado would put the following question to Boulder County voters in November:

Shall Boulder County impose a county-wide sales and use tax of 0.05% for a five year period to implement and support an immediate permanent ban on any new oil and gas development and production facilities, locations, or operations in Boulder County, and to implement and support a just transition from existing Oil and Gas Development in Boulder County?

Boulder County commissioners enacted a moratorium on new drilling soon after the passage of Senate Bill 19-181, the oil and gas reform legislation passed by state lawmakers last year, and extended the temporary ban on July 15, as the county continues to draft a set of local regulations. But in the eyes of many environmental activists, new rules like stricter emissions controls or greater setback distances won’t be enough.

“Ultimately, we know that regulations aren’t going to completely protect us, and that a permanent ban would be the most protective action we could take,” said Micah Parkin, 350 Colorado’s executive director. “If (commissioners) aren’t going to enact a ban directly, they should refer a measure to the ballot, and let the voters decide.”

In a press release, 350 Colorado said that more than 50 businesses and advocacy groups had signed a letter urging the county commission to place the measure on the November ballot. In order to do so, commissioners would need to notify the county clerk’s office by Friday, July 24, though the ballot language could be amended and finalized later this year.

No new oil and gas wells have been drilled in Boulder since 2012, but several companies have tried. Crestone Peak Resources, a Denver-based producer, submitted a plan to state regulators in 2018 for a drilling project that could include as many as 140 new wells drilled at three sites in eastern Boulder County. Extraction Oil and Gas, another Denver driller, has also previously announced plans to drill within the county, but the company — which recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy — has not formally submitted its proposal to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, records show.

Despite the low level of drilling activity in Boulder County compared to some of its neighbors, like Weld and Broomfield counties, any attempt to permanently ban oil and gas development would almost certainly prompt a legal challenge from industry groups. SB-181 stipulated that local oil and gas regulations must be “necessary and reasonable” to protect health and safety, but while state officials, including Gov. Jared Polis, have repeatedly said they don’t believe the new law authorizes cities and counties to ban drilling outright, the matter has yet to be settled by a court.

The full text of 350 Colorado’s proposal states that the proposed 0.05% sales tax increase is designed, in part, “to pay for the related costs of implementation of a permanent ban on Oil and Gas Development in the County, including County staff time, legal support, enforcement, community outreach and education.”

There is a separate legal dispute over local oil and gas restrictions in the Boulder County city of Longmont. In 2012, the city enacted a fracking ban that was ultimately struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court; following SB-181’s passage, environmental groups asked the courts to reinstate Longmont’s ban in an attempt to test the new law’s limits.

“We imagine the oil and gas industry would probably fight this as well,” Parkin told Newsline. “But sometimes it takes multiple entities approaching a matter, and taking on lawsuits, to get the courts to finally come to the right decision on these types of issues.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.