On Tuesday, Boulder County will likely have new oil and gas regulations on the books. County Commissioners are poised to pass some of the strictest possible rules they can on drilling. It’s part of a growing movement by cities and counties attempting to control an industry spreading across the Front Range. But the proposed regulations aren’t enough for most county residents. And Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus reports, that puts the Commissioners in a tough spot.
This is a transcript of Ben's report:
Reporter Ben Markus: Protests are nothing new to the fracking issue. But Boulder County Commissioners were taken aback by the intensity of the sudden outburst at last week’s hearing on new oil and gas rules.
Group: We are the people of Colorado and Boulder County!
Reporter: The shouting delayed the start of the meeting. Their message - don’t just regulate the industry; ban it altogether.
Group: Hydraulic facturing cannot be permitted in Boulder County.
Reporter: When the meeting did resume, an industry spokesperson from Encana was heckled when she told the commissioners their regulations were crafted out of fear, that Colorado already has some of the strictest regulations in the country. Afterwards, protesters yelled at her as she left the meeting.
Group: Do you understand that the people do not want to be fracked here...we have spoken, now get out of our county now.
Reporter: This video was captured by 9News. Diana Divine was one of those in attendance that night. The mother of two has lived in Boulder for decades. She says the protests have gotten more pointed, for a reason.
Diana Divine: My feeling is - and a lot of people who I’ve talked to share this feeling - is I’m not going to sit back while my community is destroyed and my children are poisoned.
Reporter: The industry strongly disagrees fracking would do anything like that, but many here are convinced that drilling will contaminate air and water. The county doesn’t have a lot of authority to reign in the industry. So they’re saying, “hey, we’ll fast track your permits if you’ll voluntarily agree to things like tougher air quality restrictions and locating wells farther from homes than the state requires.” Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor sympathizes with residents who prefer an outright ban.
Will Toor: But county government clearly does not have the legal ability to implement a ban.
Reporter: He says they crafted regulations that are as protective possible under state law. They’re trying to avoid a lawsuit like the one the state filed against Longmont and its new regulations. Commissioner Toor says it’s frustrating that the oil and gas industry plays by a different set of rules, which are defined by the state.
Toor: Virtually every other industrial process, you know, if you want to do it it’s zoned into our industrial zones, not our agricultural zones or residential zones. I think it’s pretty crazy that you have to come through zoning for a solar farm and not for a fracking operation.
Reporter: Even residents who support Boulder County’s rules still support a ban, eventually. Trisha Olson is with the Boulder County Citizens for Community Rights. She says the regulations are a good first step.
Trisha Olson: It’s a fallback. Now after that, we do want to push the County Commissioners to enact a ban.
Reporter: She predicts that a vast majority of the county would support a ban, even though it could draw a costly legal challenge. It’s possible there could be lawsuits anyway over the limited regulations Boulder County’s expected to pass. Matt Lapore is the state’s chief oil and gas regulator. He wouldn’t speculate on a possible lawsuit, and he added that the county has tried to address some of the state’s concerns. But he admits it’s tricky to balance mineral rights, the need for energy, and environmental issues.
Matt Lapore: Boulder’s engaged in that dance, the state is engaged in that dance. And at the end of the day we may not make everybody happy, we may not make anybody happy. But we’re doing the best we can to consider all of those things and balance them.
Reporter: But that’s not good enough for activists like Diana Divine. She predicts that the helplessness that localities feel in regulating the oil and gas industry will only fuel more protests.
Devine: We’re dealing with a broken system. We’re dealing with the fact that our government is controlled by the oil and gas industry, right? And there’s a saying, I think it’s a great saying that, "when injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty," from Thomas Jefferson. And I think that’s where we’re at right now, and people are starting to wake up to that fact.
Reporter: With citizens that strongly opposed to the oil and gas industry and fracking, local officials remain in a bind, trying to sort out how far they can go to appease residents without inviting legal challenges they don’t think their communities can afford.
[Photo: Anna Panoka/CPR]