Attorney General Coffman Sues Boulder County Over Drilling Moratorium

Grace Hood/CPR News
A drilling rig operates right next to I-25 on Nov. 3, 2015 just north of Longmont.

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman has filed suit against Boulder County over their ongoing oil and gas drilling moratorium.

A news release from the office of the Attorney General states that “because Boulder County continues to operate in clear violation of Colorado law, the Attorney General today is filing suit in Boulder County District Court to compel compliance.”

“It is not the job of industry to enforce Colorado law; that is the role of the Attorney General on behalf of the People of Colorado,” the statement continues. “Regrettably, Boulder County’s open defiance of State law has made legal action the final recourse available to the State.”

This dispute in Colorado’s ongoing battle over oil and gas development stems from a Jan. 26 letter, where Coffman criticized efforts by the county to extend multiple moratoriums throughout the past five years. Coffman gave the county a Feb. 10 deadline to comply.

“Boulder County’s continued moratorium on new oil and gas development is a clear violation of state law, and as Colorado's chief law-enforcement official I cannot turn a blind eye,” Coffman said in her letter, referring to the May 2016 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that struck down long-term bans and moratoriums. “I am hopeful that the Boulder County Commissioners will take the necessary steps to come into compliance rather than forcing the State to go to court.”

Boulder County attorney Ben Pearlman countered that the county needs the moratorium to properly plan for future oil and gas development. The last time the county planned for development was 2012 and industry practices have since “evolved in ways of great concern to local residents, schools and others in proximate to oil and gas operations,” Pearlman wrote in his response.

Pearlman cited the rise of larger pads with 20 to 40 oil wells near neighborhoods. According to analysis by CPR News, 7.65 percent of proposed facilities in 2012 had eight or more wells. In 2016, the share of proposed “large” facilities jumped to 43.06 percent.

Boulder County commissioners noted the holiday the suit was filed on in their response, saying “the Colorado Attorney General sent a special Valentine to the oil and gas industry” with the lawsuit. The commissioners continued by calling the suit a “sweetheart deal” for the industry and a “massive waste of Coloradans’ tax dollars” to sue the county on the industry’s behalf.

Referring back to the letter attorney Ben Pearlman sent to Coffman, the county maintains in their statement that their current moratorium is “consistent with Colorado law” since it is of a shorter duration.

In an official statement following the announcement of the suit, Dan Haley, the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association echoed AG Coffman’s assertion on the law.

“It’s not about drilling, or fracking, or pipelines, it’s about the law. And the law is clear: Long-term moratoriums — and this one is over five years now — are illegal. Boulder County shouldn’t be surprised that the Attorney General cares about the rule of law in Colorado.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include the response from the Boulder County commissioners to the Attorney General's suit.