by Pam Zubeck
About 40 people gathered at the City Administration Building last night to hash out what should or shouldn't be required of oil and gas drilling companies within the city limits of Colorado Springs. The issue has been triggered by Houston-based Ultra Resources' plan to drill on 18,000 acres of the Banning Lewis Ranch.
It was part of efforts by the City Oil and Gas Committee to deliver a recommendation to the full City Council on June 26 about what's to be done. The funny thing is, the committee can't recommend anything specific.
The main problem: The City Attorney's Office is under the thumb of Mayor Steve Bach and can't follow instruction from Councilors unless there are at least five Council votes directing him to write detailed ordinances for Council consideration. There are only three Council members on the Oil and Gas Committee.
During the five months of meetings, this has meant those Councilors have been unable to request additional research or information from City Attorney Chris Melcher or his staff. Councilor Brandy Williams, who with Val Snider and Angela Dougan represent Council on the committee, admits that the committee hasn't had enough detailed information for members to form opinions on some potential areas of concern.
What's more, when the committee formulates its recommendation on June 4, it can only make general recommendations to the rest of Council. For instance, whether it might consider creating specific zones for drilling, setback requirements, water quality, impact fees and site plan regulations.
"I cannot ask staff to make it any clearer than that because [the city attorney's office is] in the mayor's branch of government," says Williams.
Some residents, unsurprisingly, aren't happy with how the committee process has gone. Several have complained the public was given no chance to comment until Thursday night, and then the format forced people to meet in groups rather than voice their opinions to everyone, as is commonly done in such circumstances.
"It's a poor replacement," resident Lotus told committee chair Snider, referring to the group format. "It's not what we came here for."
One resident labeled the entire process FUBAR, a military acronym for Fucked Up Beyond All Repair.
Other residents complained that the committee never invited residents and officials from other communities that have experienced problems from oil and gas drilling to share their experiences with the city committee.
Lotus said in only three weeks, he's gathered a stack of documents and information about problems that the committee apparently never addressed in a meaningful way.
For example, he said the committee visited Greeley, where drilling is rampant, but left many rocks unturned. "There was no mention of asking for any chemical analysis," Lotus told Snider as other residents huddled around tables. "How many lawsuits have been filed by the people in Greeley? It was like, 'Why did you go there? Doesn't it make sense to go to the communities that are complaining?' I'm baffled by the way this committee can stifle the public the way it has."
Huerfano County is one place where people are up in arms over drilling. Groups have formed to protest and try to stop further drilling by Shell Oil. But the committee didn't consult with those groups or visit Huerfano County.
Snider responded by saying the public wasn't allowed to comment during the committee meetings, because "I was looking to educate the committee. Now we're getting public input, which is great."
Speaking of educating the committee, Williams says outside counsel Howard Boigan with Hogan and Lovells, an international law firm chosen by Melcher to advise the committee, was charged with setting up experts to give presentations to the committee about aspects of the business. Boigan has long represented oil and gas companies, which Williams called "perfect" for the committee, because he brings a great deal of familiarity of the industry to the table.
In any event, Snider admitted the entire process was put off-kilter by the restrictions on the committee that kept it from obtaining staff support, notably from Melcher's office. Asked if he was frustrated, Snider replied, "What's a word for 'politely frustrated'?"
Although some friends of the environment wanted to hand out some information, the city didn't allow it at first. At the end of the meeting, it was given out, but many had left by then. Here's the text of one of those handouts:
POTENTIAL TALKING POINTS
Oil and gas development in Colorado Springs has the potential to cause significant harm to our health and lifestyles. Consider raising the following concerns with City planners and elected officials.
● Restrict Oil and Gas Activities to Appropriate Locations: Do not allow oil and gas activities in residential zones or zones that allow mixed residential and commercial use. Allow oil and gas exploration and development only in industrial and agricultural zones. City regulations would apply everywhere and must take into account impacts to developed areas as well as the undeveloped Banning Lewis Ranch.
● Require Reasonable Setback: Where permitted, oil and gas activities must be set back as far as reasonably possible from homes, occupied buildings, businesses, and sensitive locations such as hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, parks and public gathering places; and in all cases a minimum of 500 feet. (Current COGCC setbacks range from 150' to 350' for wellheads.)
● Develop Additional High Density Requirements: Require applicants to undertake a more detailed public notice/public participation process where operations would be located in high density areas. This would include preliminary public scoping meetings to identify specific impacts to surrounding properties.
● Require Detailed Site and Operation Planning: Require operators to prepare a site plan, describing the site and the surrounding neighborhood, and how drilling or location of facilities would impact both the site and surrounding properties. Require operators to prepare a detailed operating plan and reclamation plan. These plans must contain details necessary to allow impacts to other property owners to be identified and mitigated.
● Require Adequate Water Quality Monitoring: Analyze all drilling permit applications to determine potential impacts to aquifers and surface water. Require pre-drilling baseline data gathering and periodic groundwater monitoring to detect spills or leakage of oil, gas, or drilling chemicals and products into aquifers. Require reporting of all spills to City officials.
● Require Applicants to Address Other Environmental and Safety Concerns: Require applicants to address wildlife impacts, impacts to sensitive areas such as streams or wetlands, geohazard or fire hazard areas. Require applicants to prepare a traffic control and safety plan and demonstrate that roads can support heavy equipment traffic or that adequate upgrade or remediation measures will be taken.
● Develop Standard Conditions of Approval: City requirements should be incorporated into standard conditions of approval. By incorporating these conditions into city regulations, the City’s Local Government Designee would be able negotiate agreements with operators and the COGCC with the power of binding local land use regulations at his back. The conditions of approval contained in the COGCC permits for the first two permits should be the standard minimum, included on all permits.
● Impose Impact Fees Covering Actual Costs of Oil and Gas Activities: Require oil and gas permit applicants to pay an up-front fee covering the City’s cost to analyze the application and to inspect oil and gas operations, plus actual impacts to roads, other city infrastructure. Require operators to fund the cost of city inspections if the state lacks adequate staff or funding to conduct needed inspections.
● Limit Waiver of Local Rules to Cases of Actual Hardship or Operational Conflict: Require oil and gas operators to comply with all local rules and restrictions unless this is proven to be technologically or economically impossible or in actual conflict with state regulatory requirements. Require applicants to seek relief through standard City processes, by requesting zoning changes, variances, special use permits, waiver of standard permit conditions, and the like. The burden should always be on the operator to show that it cannot reasonably comply with City oil and gas regulations.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
● No Oil and Gas Operations Near Residential Neighborhoods
● Adequate Local Controls on All Oil and Gas Operations
● Oil and Gas Operations Could Occur Anywhere. City Regulations Must Recognize That.