Embracing a new regulatory role with the state
[ By Katherine Nettles ]
As the state of Colorado updates its oil and gas regulations with a more holistic approach to human health and environmental sustainability, it appears Gunnison County regulations will be upheld and in some cases, tightened.
Former Gunnison County commissioner John Messner, who is now a member of the newly re-formed Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), shared updates with Gunnison County commissioners on Tuesday, April 27 on the state’s recent rulemaking efforts. Messner also discussed the authority of local jurisdictions and how the new regulations can protect wildlife corridors and critical habitat for wildlife when considering any new oil and gas applications within the county and beyond.
Messner stepped down from his county commissioner seat last summer to accept a position on the COGCC in Denver as one of five appointed members. Governor Polis signed Senate Bill 181 in 2019, changing the group from a voluntary one to a full-time professional panel, and the COGCC shifted its core mission from fostering oil and gas production in Colorado to regulating it “to protect public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources,” effective as of January 2021.
SB 181 also directed the COGCC to undertake several other rulemakings, and these new policies became effective January 15, 2021. Messner spoke first of the COGCC’s commitment to transparency and public engagement. The COGCC is now holding regular public hearings with extensive written and verbal public commentary, and Messner said he believes the online format of such public hearings due to COVID has improved public participation, making the hearings more accessible and convenient to attend. New permitting rules include environmental justice, considering disproportionately impacted communities and alternative location analysis, cumulative impacts, provisions for local governments affected and more. Anyone affected by oil and gas development or production can now request a public hearing before the commission.
The new permitting rules have also established comprehensive area plans, which honor local plans and regulations. Commissioner Liz Smith asked what specific rule changes might be of interest to or otherwise impact Gunnison County.
“I think there are certainly some additional protections around wildlife habitats and water resources that all affect operations within Gunnison County,” said Messner. However, he said Gunnison County’s regulations in many ways already cover that. “In a lot of ways that is what the COGCC ultimately adopted.” Messner said the additional authority given to local governments through SB 181, which did not exist when Gunnison County’s regulations were initially developed, now ensures that they will stay strong.
The rulemaking has also ended routine flaring and venting by oil and gas operators, and at commissioner Roland Mason’s prompting, Messner explained that operators are now required to capture natural gas and pipe it for economic use rather than releasing it into the environment.
County commissioner Jonathan Houck asked how new rules offer protections for wildlife such as the Gunnison Sage Grouse, and if they will address habitat fragmentation for the endangered species.
“Is the state specifically looking at that… when there are applications within these critical habitats?” asked Houck.
“With the local authority this bill gives, Gunnison County regulations are still very strong,” reiterated Messner. The new rules moved buffers between well sites and Gunnison Sage Grouse from .6 miles to 1 mile, he added, and critical habitats and wildlife provisions are considered in coordination with both federally protected species and with those listed through the state with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He added that larger game migration corridors are also considered in any area comprehensive plan. “The underlying focus is always to avoid first, and then minimize and mitigate,” said Messner of wildlife and environmental impacts.
New minimum site setbacks have also been expanded to 2,000 feet and now include schools in addition to homes. As of March 1, operators have to notify COGCC which current well locations and applications they will replace under the new rules, and the COGCC is now able to receive new permit applications as well.
The next step will be for the commission to take up three final rulemakings in 2021, regarding financial assurances, worker safety and permit fees.
“I can’t emphasize enough how much this was a team effort, including Gunnison County, in accomplishing these rulemakings. And I couldn’t be more appreciative of the countless hours of testimony and input… by citizens and stakeholders across the state,” concluded Messner.