Premier Aurora oil and gas operator agreement gets 1 thumbs up, 1 thumbs down from city lawmakers

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A previous version of this story inaccurately described which operator agreements Aurora City Council passed May 20. Council members did not back an agreement with Axis Exploration; another pact with ConocoPhillips was approved. We regret the error.

AURORA| Aurora’s first oil and gas development operator agreements met the public during study session Monday, but some concerns about protection of health, safety and environment still remain from city lawmakers and members of the public.

Two separate agreements, which have previously been negotiated and studied in closed sessions, were considered. One was approved, the other was held back. The pact with Axis Exploration didn’t garner any approval. Councilman Dave Gruber was absent. An agreement with ConocoPhillips received votes from five members, enough to move it to the council meeting.

Many of the proposed well sites will be in northeast Aurora, the portion of the city represented by council member Nicole Johnston. She’s been a proponent of more stringent rules on oil and gas and the state legislation that now shifts control to local government.

Council members decided to allow operator agreements shortly before SB19-181 was passed earlier this year. That legislation changes the focus of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to focus on health, environment and safety. It also shifts regulation to local governments.

Johnston said she’d like to see more maps of where proposed wells would be located and more communication with the public before a formal vote takes place. Councilman Johnny Watson argued that the city shouldn’t be delaying the agreements just to delay them.

Staff said they are still looking for clarifications on some aspects of the ConocoPhillips agreement, but an update would be presented to council members before a formal vote in early June.

ConocoPhillips is seeking approval of 45 well sites, eight of which are within a quarter-mile of a home. The oil and gas developer is also seeking 10 permits through the administrative approval process with the city and want the operator agreement to be passed with a waiver of reconsideration, essentially speeding up the approval. They say not doing so would hinder their production schedule. 

ConocoPhillips has operated in Aurora since 2013 and has 140 wells planned within city limits through 2023. They plan to bring many of their existing sites up to standards set forth in the agreement as possible.

Council members Johnston, Angela Lawson, Crystal Murillo and Allison Hiltz did not vote for the ConocoPhillips agreement.

The Axis Exploration agreement would allow development at four identified well site locations in Aurora. Council members agreed to hold back the agreement for now because of language in the current pact addressing circumstances Axis could sue the city .

Outside legal counsel presented to council the ways the operator agreements go beyond the current rules of the COGCC. Aurora city lawmakers have yet to set their own rules regulating oil and gas development, but the agreements set certain standards for air quality, water quality, pipelines, odor and noise mitigation.

Both oil and gas companies agreed to higher reporting standards than currently required by the COGCC, purchasing additional insurance not required by the COGCC and responding to odor complaints within 24 hours, also not regulated by the state.

Several Aurora residents voiced opposition to the agreement drafts, which were only made public on Friday, during the city council’s public comment period Monday night. 

One speaker pointed to one section in the Axis Exploration agreement that noted the city would receive a “confidential”map of proposed pipelines.

“If city council didn’t catch that, what else didn’t they catch?” the resident said.

Neighboring Broomfield also allows oil and gas companies to enter into operator agreements, but that city recently decided to enact a moratorium on oil and gas applications in order to enact regulations. Johnston floated the idea in Aurora prior to the passage of Sb19-181, but she abandoned it shortly before the operator agreements were approved.

Johnston has urged fellow council members to adopt its own standards and regulations and write them into city code. There are no current plans to do so. Staff told council members they could use standards written into operator agreements to craft city law in the future.