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Garfield County has emerged as a leading voice in challenging elements of new and proposed state oil and gas regulations and is putting its money — $1.5 million — where its mouth is.

The county has organized the Western and Rural Local Government Coalition, which represents 23 counties and municipalities on the West Slope and Eastern Plains. The coalition has become an active participant at state Air Quality Control Commission and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemakings.

After the AQCC adopted tougher rules on air emissions from oil and gas operations, nine coalition counties sued the commission arguing that it had not paid sufficient attention to local concerns and economic impacts.

They also argued that it was unfair to apply rules for large oil and gas operations in the heavily populated Front Range to smaller wells in rural areas. The lawsuit is pending in Denver District Court.

Garfield County is footing the bill for the coalition and the lawsuit, for which it has hired Denver-based Davis, Graham & Stubbs, one of the state’s biggest law firms.

In addition to attorneys, Garfield County has hired as advisers an economics consultant, an air quality engineer, a land use expert, former COGCC executive director Matt Lepore and Tommy Holton, a former COGCC commissioner.

“We need to make sure our voices are heard,” said Garfield County Commissioner John Martin. “It does take expertise and research and we don’t have that all in house and that’s why we are contracting.”

Garfield, which is the second largest county in Colorado for oil and gas activity, is following the largest oil and gas county, Weld, which has also intervened in rulemakings, set up its own well-permitting office, and unsuccessfully sued the AQCC.

Martin said Garfield County could face a multimillion-dollar drop in oil and gas production and property taxes if the industry is constrained by cumbersome rules,  adding that those taxes provide most of the funding for school and fire districts in the county.

“It is not that we are just protecting fossil fuels, you have to look at the whole picture,” he said.

Garfield County’s commissioners are worried that new state rules regulating emissions from oil and gas operations will constrain local tax collections. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The money for the campaign is coming from the county’s oil and gas mitigation fund, which receives money from oil and gas severance taxes and royalties. There is about $16.8 million in the fund.

In addition to the lawsuit, the county and its coalition are also preparing to participate in another oil and gas air emissions rulemaking this fall at the AQCC and the COGCC’s mission change rulemaking, which begins Aug. 24.

The oil-and-gas war chest has its critics. “They are spending $1.5 million to try to stop very basic protections from going into place,” said Emily Hornback, executive director of the Western Colorado Alliance, a grassroots community group. “The county is representing a very particular interest, not all of the public.”

Of particular consternation, Hornback said, is the fact that the AQCC lawsuit targets a requirement that there be more frequent and enhanced leak detection for wells within 1,000 feet of occupied areas – such as homes, playgrounds and schools.

This was a rule supported by residents of Battlement Mesa, a housing development in Garfield County, which has also been the scene of active drilling.

In July, the alliance, in conjunction with six other conservation groups, won the right to intervene in the Garfield County lawsuit in support of the AQCC regulations.

“Despite what our commissioners may think, an elected official’s job is to protect everyone in their community,” Battlement Mesa resident Betsy Leonard said in written testimony submitted to the COGCC. “Spending $1.5 million to single-handedly fund an effort to allow oil and gas companies to release poison into the air near our homes isn’t protecting anyone.”

Much of the Garfield County resources are going into the COGCC rulemaking that will change the mission of the statewide regulatory agency from promoting oil and gas development to protecting public health, safety and welfare and the environment.

One of the key elements, as laid out in the legislation mandating the change, Senate Bill 181, is giving local government more control and oversight of oil and gas operations.

How much control and who has priority, local or state government, is emerging as the major battleground in the rulemaking and Garfield County is in the thick of the action.

Under the proposed rules, a driller must first obtain local approval for a project and then apply for a state permit. A local decision in conflict with state standards could, however, trigger the need for a state alternative site analysis and lead to the COGCC second-guessing the local ruling.

“If you approve a location the COGCC should defer,” Lepore told the Garfield County Commissioners at an Aug. 10 briefing, “unless there is clear and substantial evidence that you goofed.”

As long as local regulations reasonably protect public health, safety and welfare they do not have to be the same as the state’s, Lepore said.

The county has crafted a position that gives primacy to local regulators, opposes the state setting minimum standards for local regulations and calls for COGCC participation at the local level to iron-out issues before there is a local-state conflict.

“Our coalition believes many if not all of the local-state authority conflict issues and concerns will be addressed by our proposal to COGCC to participate in local government reviews and sighting decisions,” said Kirby Wynn, Garfield County oil and gas liaison and manager of the coalition.

The county is also proposing that alternative site analysis be limited to the most densely populated areas of the Front Range.

“Garfield County is trying to eviscerate Senate Bill 181,” said Matt Sura, an attorney for the alliance. “The legislation established independent, co-equal authorities each with the responsibility for protection of public health, safety and welfare.”

Martin said much is at stake in the rulemakings and lawsuits. “It isn’t about politics; it is about survival,” he said.

Hornback, however, said the county’s campaign is eclipsing other local concerns. “We are trying to bring the voices of impacted citizens to the table, and we are being outspent,” she said.

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