GREELEY — The Board of Weld County Commissioners will decide in the coming weeks how far they want to challenge new oil and gas regulations signed into law last month.
A resolution passed by the board on Wednesday started the process to make Unincorporated Weld County an area of state interest and subsequently an “Oil and Gas Local Control” county, thus bypassing the state for permitting of all wells inside its jurisdiction.
A decades-old law that gives authority to the idea could prove to be the answer for other oil and gas friendly municipalities inside the county.
The resolution is part of Weld County’s ongoing resistance to the passage of Senate Bill 181, which makes sweeping, and highly restrictive, changes to how oil and gas development is regulated in Colorado.
A vote on a formal designation will be taken after a public hearing on June 10. After that, a three-reading process to change Weld County code will occur. There is usually a week or so between readings. The process should be complete by Aug 1.
Currently, Weld County only manages what they call a Weld Oil and Gas Location Assessment process, which insures there are agreements in place with the land owner, agreements between the land owner and mineral owner if different, agreements with the drilling company as far as where the pad will be placed, access, etc.
Currently, that process is handled by county staff, while the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) manages all aspect of the operations and permits all wells. There are more than 6,500 permits in limbo in the state system, more than 2/3rds of which are inside Weld.
Weld commissioners believe local communities could have permitted wells themselves for decades under a 1974 law. None have because of the cost to implement and oversee the process. Senate Bill 181 actually reinforced that belief, said Mike Freeman, vice chairman of the board.
“Each local government within its respective jurisdiction has the authority to plan for and regulate the use of land by … Regulating the surface impacts of oil and gas operations,”
The ability for a local government to regulate matters of state interest has been around for 45 years.
“It gave counties surface use pre-emption over the state because they believed it needed to be handled locally versus state permitting,” said Freeman about the reasoning behind the 1974 law known as 1041 powers.
1041 Powers refers to House Bill 1041, passed in 1974, which according to the state’s website allows: “local governments to identify, designate, and regulate areas and activities of state interest through a local permitting process. The general intention of these powers is to allow for local governments to maintain their control over particular development projects even where the development project has statewide impacts.”
Mineral resource areas are currently included as “statewide areas” under 1041 powers, so Weld commissioners are likely to make that official on June 10, when they will hold a hearing to decide whether to declare all of unincorporated Weld County areas of state interest.
“If we do that, then we would be able to use 1041 powers for surface things dealing with oil and gas,” Freeman said. “Things that are under the purview of the commission for land use, not the oil and gas production.”
The state would still regulate anything underground such as depth and strength of pipes, but the surface items that would fall on Weld County to regulate tend to be the more controversial aspects of a drilling operation such as setbacks, noise control, lighting, screening and dust mitigation.
The change would also remove the COGCC from the process of defining how to “minimize adverse impacts to public health, safety and welfare,” Freeman said.
“We will have to demonstrate the health and safety of the citizens,” Freeman said. “And that is something we will take into account. We just think we have better determination of what’s going on in Weld County than the state does.”
Freeman, who along with all the other commissioners was active in trying to fight SB 181 throughout the process, said county commissioners are going to hold the governor and bill sponsors to what they have promised.
“We need to remember what the governor has said through this whole process,” Freeman said. “And that is that Senate Bill 181 is to allow more local control. So, what we’re stating is that local control isn’t just for Boulder County that wants to go above and beyond what the state does. It cuts both ways. If Boulder County has 1041 powers to do what they think is in the best interest of their county for oil and gas production, we also have the same right.”
Freeman said although he hopes Gov. Jared Polis stands behind his word, it could end up in court. Weld is prepared if that happens, Freeman said.
Greeley Mayor John Gates said Greeley will be watching what happens in Weld County closely to determine what, if any, steps Greeley might take as well. Greeley city attorney Doug Marek is planning to present the Greeley City Council with an analysis of what he believes local control means for Greeley, Gates said.
“I still have the same questions now as I did when the bill was in process,” Gates said. “Local control is such a vague term, what does that really mean? It might play into the 1041, but I am certainly interested in what the county does but what Mr. Marek’s analysis is.”
Gates said he fully supports what the county is doing.
“I’m sure the commissioners have had that vetted, and we’re having it vetted,” Gates said. “I don’t know how we’ll see it, but I appreciate that the county is looking out for the interest because its going to affect us all.”
Gates added if Weld and other communities can do business as they see fit, then SB 181 will be more palatable than what he originally thought.
“I applaud the fact that the county commissioners are the trend setters,” Gates said. “We’ve got a huge amount of permits that are pending for the county, and 181 could be devastating. I’m not saying it will be but it could be. So, any type of progress will be great … 181 is not good for Greeley and Weld County.”