Workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, in western Colorado, March 29, 2013.

Brennan Linsley/AP

Fears about a potential flood of drilling applications before the legislature approves a sweeping oil and gas overhaul prompted Adams County commissioners to ban new oil and gas development on Wednesday.

“The moratorium is simply going to be a timeout from the new permits,” said board chair Steve O’Dorisio on Thursday. “That time will allow us to be able to make the changes to our regulations after the Senate Bill 181 is put into effect. And the reason why we need that timeout is because we want to make sure that the process of amending those regulations would be well thought out.”

The five commissioners voted unanimously to approve the six-month moratorium after a hearing that included about two hours of public comment Wednesday. Many speakers had ties to the oil and gas industry and urged the commissioners not to vote for the temporary ban.

But the concerns over what will happen in the legislature won out.

Senate Bill 19-181 would bring big reforms to the oil and gas industry, giving cities and counties control on where wells go. It would also change Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and how forced pooling works. The bill has been quickly moving through the state legislature.

This is the second time in a year that the county commissioners enacted a moratorium on the industry. Adams County halted new operations in 2018 a month before the mid-term election. Proposition 112, a ballot measure that failed, would have imposed a 2,500-foot setback on operations from homes and schools.

O’Dorisio said the pressure is on right now with the oil and gas industry.

“What we’re talking about is local control and let the local governments, who can better manage what happens in those communities, be able to address those issues,” he said. “This is the only industry where local governments cannot do their normal land-use processes and long-range planning.”

O’Dorisio said the new moratorium would affect six permits totaling 111 wells. Extraction Oil and Gas, Inc. submitted an application for 22 wells that was approved Wednesday morning, just before the public hearing.

“Those won’t be included in the moratorium now, so the folks that live close to those wells are not going to get the same protections as other people will after this bill,” he said. “It was very indicative of why we had to do this.”

Democratic Sen. Stephen Fenberg, a sponsor of SB 19-181, said Thursday the moratorium was unnecessary because he’s confident the bill will pass, but Adams County government has the authority to do so.  

“It’s part of the narrative that communities are scared,” he said. “They don’t know what to do to feel like they are going to be safe because they don't feel like they have the power to stand up to the oil and gas industry if there are pending permits or if there is oil and gas moving into their neighborhood.”

The Colorado Petroleum Council said the Adams County commissioners circumvented current state law with the ban.

“Adams County’s commissioners have just given Coloradans a glimpse of the consequences that Senate Bill 181 will have in the state,” said Ben Marter, Colorado Petroleum Council spokesman in a statement. “Again and again, proponents of this bill have explicitly denied any suggestions that the measure would permit municipalities and counties to do exactly what has happened in Adams County today.”

Environmental groups sided with the commissioners on the move to wait to see what happens with the legislature's oil and gas overhaul.

“Adams County did the right thing today by stopping all new fracking permits,” said Jason Harrison, Food and Water Watch Colorado Organizer in a statement. “This measure will give the county government time to evaluate the new law, should SB 181 pass, and give the community a chance to weigh in on the issue. The people most directly affected by the dangers of oil and gas drilling should have the right to decide what happens in their communities.”