AURORA | A smattering of new oil and gas regulations giving priority to environmental well-being and safety are quietly making their way through city government, and lawmakers could sign off on new rules in the coming months.
The city’s Oil and Gas Division and its chief Jeffrey Moore penned a draft of would-be regulations released last month that prioritize — for the first time — public health, safety, wildlife and environmental impacts for drilling sites, pipelines and other aspects of oil and gas extraction.
“There’s been tremendous progress made,” said Sonia Skakich-Scrima, a longtime activist and co-founder of What the Frack Arapahoe.
The city council will have to sign off on any of the new rules Moore helped develop with public input from environmentalists and oil and gas trade groups diametrically opposed on the thorny issue. He said lawmakers will likely get a first look in February or March.
The Oil and Gas Division released the draft rules in late December. They add the new environmental priority and a few notable additions to regulations mostly written in 2019.
If approved, the city would require operators to drill groundwater monitoring wells and routinely test whether developments are polluting underground aquifers providing drinking water for residents across the Front Range.
“Protecting water quality is one of the most important things that we can do,” Moore told the Sentinel.
Companies would have to prove that they’re financially sound and able to abide by the city’s regulations. They’d also have to disclose past instances of rules violations in the previous three years.
The items are nods to the shaky ground many oil and gas operators stand on. Several Denver-based companies including Extraction Oil and Gas, a major player in Aurora, went bankrupt last year during a rough patch for the industry.
And along with more protections for residents and the environment, the regulations themselves could be revised in the future.
That’s a departure from the city’s current policy. The city regulates oil and gas activities through two operator agreements that were set in stone — over the objections of activists, including Skakich-Scrima — amid a boon for drillers that began in 2019 and continues despite the pandemic.
Those broad agreements created air quality monitoring guidelines, rules for heavy trucks damaging roads and more. They’ll continue to govern the drilling sites and pipelines already in the city. The new rules would apply to all new developments within city limits.
Moore said about 95% of the new draft rules are old parameters included in those two operator agreements.
Councilmember Dave Gruber noted that fact. He said some of the new items were originally debated in a city oil and gas commission he co-chaired with Nicole Johnston to craft the operator agreements.
“I don’t see these as a sea change at all,” he said.
Johnston, meanwhile, sees the planned additions as more robust.
By pledging to protect the environment and public health, the new rules would follow Senate Bill 181, a 2019 overhaul of state government’s approach to oil and gas government. The law allows local governments such as Aurora to write its own, tougher regulations.
When Moore opened up a public comment period on the draft rules in the summer, he received more than 500 pages of input.
Some residents called for a total ban on drilling, while another called the city’s proposed rules “bureaucratic overreach.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association red-lined the entire draft document with suggestions. The group, which has challenged local regulations throughout the state, had “serious due process concerns” because the Aurora city council had not written the proposals — although lawmakers will have the final say. The group said the process was possibly illegal.
COGA President Dan Haley said in a statement that the draft rules allow city officials “too much subjective discretion.”
“As an industry, we’re prepared to meet the city’s and the state’s robust health and safety requirements, but the review should be based on the merits of the application and not subject to the politics of the day,” he said.
Haley did not say whether COGA would challenge the plans in court.
But Skakich-Scrima is generally pleased with the process and the outcome, she said.
The Oil and Gas Division specifically incorporated some of her technical suggestions, which spanned dozens of pages. That includes the rule that operators prove they are financially sound.
In her comments, she and other environmentalists cited a growing body of public evidence suggesting that residents living in close proximity to drilling sites can suffer adverse health effects, including birth defects and cancer.
That evidence is also shaping the state’s policy changes.
Last week, a landmark rule went into effect establishing a minimum 2,000-foot buffer zone between new drilling sites and homes and schools. Previously, state oil and gas commissioners could sign off on new drilling sites just 500 feet away in more urban areas.
The rule also measures the setback distance from the edge of the development site instead of the oil well itself, Moore said. That will allow for even more distance between Aurora residents and new drilling sites.
Although the regulations would create more protections for residents’ health and the environment, Skakich-Scrima noted that the document doesn’t specifically address climate change fueled in part by oil and gas production.
Scientists say that Colorado will likely continue to become hotter and drier unless fossil fuel combustion is drastically cut — a reality fueling the state’s ambitious, but far-off climate goals.
She also wants to see stronger rules for air quality monitoring. So-called “fugitive emissions” of methane and other pollutants remain a major share of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to Governor Jared Polis’ recent climate “roadmap.”
Moore said that the new regulations would be flexible. They could be changed in the future in “a science-based process” to respond to statewide climate targets.
But he added that local governments who attempt to ban drilling have historically been overruled in Colorado, and that’s not Aurora’s intention.
“We don’t believe that we have the ability to shut an industry down,” Moore said.
This year, oil and gas production continued at historically high levels in Adams and Arapahoe counties during market turmoil and a pandemic-induced recession. The oil well sites in Aurora dot the city’s eastern edge.