Several Colorado conservation groups are intervening in a lawsuit challenging new oil and gas rules, and an environmental organization says it might pursue an initiative in 2022 despite talk of a ceasefire in the battle over new regulations.
A Denver District Court judge recently ruled that seven conservation groups could join the state in defending rules approved by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to implement Senate Bill 181. The bill, signed into law in 2019, mandates changes intended to strengthen protections for public health and safety and the environment.
And while Gov. Jared Polis has said conservationists and the industry are willing to work together to prevent initiatives in 2022, sponsors of measures proposed but dropped this year are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Garfield and nine other counties are suing to overturn rules approved in December that are aimed at cutting emissions from well sites. The rules require more frequent inspections of oil and gas equipment statewide and of occupied buildings within 1,000 feet of well sites.
Garfield County supported more than 90% of the rules, Kirby Wynn, the county’s oil and gas liaison, said in an email. The provisions the counties are challenging “pose significant economic harm to rural Colorado and Garfield County with little to no environmental benefit in our area of the state,” he added.
The counties’ objections include leak controls on the “smallest and lowest-emitting” tanks outside the northern Front Range, where ground-level ozone exceeds federal limits, and new requirements for frequent monitoring of leaks near occupied buildings.
The coalition of conservation groups, led by the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, Western Colorado Alliance and Conservation Colorado, said in their motion to join the lawsuit that they participated in the rule-making process and have a strong interest in upholding the rules to protect their “tens of thousands of members across Colorado.”
The lawsuit is one more development in the ongoing conflicts over SB 181. Organizations on different sides have dropped efforts to place proposals on the 2020 ballot in what Polis said in a July 27 column in Colorado Politics was an agreement to let the law work.
“These groups have committed to withdraw current ballot measures filed for 2020 and have expressed a willingness to work together to prevent future ballot measures through 2022,” Polis said in the column.
But Anne Lee Foster with the group Safe and Healthy Colorado and a sponsor of one of the initiatives said Polis didn’t talk to her. She said supporters ended their campaign for an initiative requiring 2,500-foot setbacks from wells because the Colorado Supreme Court threw out a measure allowing people to gather voters’ signatures by email or mail during the pandemic.
“No one talked to us” about dropping the initiative, said Foster, who has criticized regulators for what she says are concessions to the industry. She said environmental and community groups are exploring the possibility of another initiative effort in 2022.
When he signed SB 181 into law in April 2019, Polis said he hoped it would end Colorado’s “oil and gas wars” that have been marked by several ballot proposals and millions of dollars to support or quash them. Polis will work with conservationists and the industry to keep measures from both sides off the 2022 ballot, spokesman Conor Cahill said in an email
Diane Schwenke, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, said supporters of a ballot proposal to create a state oil and gas commission appointed by a panel of retired judges decided to hold off to see how a new, full-time commission works out. She said the measure’s proponents are opposed to major portions of SB 181.
“From our perspective, we would rather see this be handled in the regulatory environment and not at the ballot box. These are complex issues,” Schwenke said.
As for a commitment not to pursue an initiative in 2022, Schwenke said, “We are in a kind wait-and-see mode.
“It also depends on what the environmental community does,” she added.
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