DENVER, CO – On Monday, June 17th, and Tuesday, June 18th, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) hosted the first of several special rulemaking hearings to enact the directives of SB 19-181, the ‘Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations,’ which passed the Colorado Legislature on April 17th. This new law reformed the Commission’s mission to no longer foster oil and gas development, but to regulate oil and gas in such as way as to protect public health, safety, welfare, the environment, and wildlife.

At the hearing, community and environmental groups and individuals who have been impacted by oil and gas drilling in residential areas continued to urge the commission to enact a pause in issuing oil and gas permits until public health and safety research can be assessed and new, more protective rules are complete. Over 1,100 letters have been sent since passage of the new bill urging the Commission and the Polis administration to “pause the permits” while the most protective rules possible are promulgated. Community groups expressed concern that instead of enacting a moratorium the Commission is “putting the cart before the horse” and appears to be trying to speed up fracking permitting by first making the “500 Series” rulemaking regarding procedures and authorizing administrative law judges to settle disputes the first order of business.

Over 60 community and environmental groups applied for formal party status in the SB 19-181 rulemaking process. Presentations were made by parties including 15 oil and gas industry groups and over 30 community and environmental groups.

Oil and gas industry groups moved to strike written prehearing statements submitted by several community groups. The Commission denied that motion, allowing the testimony to stand, but said that many issues presented by community groups were deemed to be “outside the scope of the 500-Series Rulemaking.”

Community groups insisted that the continued permitting and the current process of 500 Series Rulemaking is out of order, potentially illegal and not meeting the COGCC’s new mission post passage of SB 19-181. They demanded that the Commission must first evaluate research and promulgate rules regarding substantive (rather than procedural) issues, such as well density in neighborhoods, cumulative impacts on air quality and the climate crisis, forced pooling, and financial risks of proposed projects, whether industry bonding is sufficient to cover the full cost of oil and gas activities from inception to remediation, and to allow for more impacted community input in the process.

SB181 precludes new drilling permits until rulemaking ensures the public interest and environment is not being sacrificed. The Series 500 rulemaking is hopelessly out of sequence,” said Phil Doe of Be The Change – USA. Since January of this year, 1,199 oil and gas permits have been approved, with over 600 of them approved since March 1st introduction of SB 19-181. Since the passage of the bill, 87 permits have been approved.

Citing Colorado’s air quality as being three times worse than Beijing’s and the fact that air quality in Colorado regularly fails federal ozone standards, other groups called for continuous air quality monitoring mandated by the new law, calling for independent monitoring that is verifiable with state oversight to preclude tampering.

“On the state level, Colorado has been out of compliance with ozone levels for years and a large percent of ozone is attributable to oil and gas operations,” shared Harv Teitelbaum, Physicians for Social Responsibility. “The American Public Health Association advises ‘Because unconventional oil and gas extraction poses a range of known and unknown risks to public health and the environment, including risks to drinking water, air quality and worker health, (it) recommends that unconventional oil and gas development cease and that a strategic phase-out of existing development be encouraged where possible.’”

New commissioners were appointed by Governor Polis on May 17 to meet the requirements of SB 19-181, which reduces the mandated number of oil and gas industry commission members from three to one and increases representation from health and environmental or wildlife professionals on the commission. Over the past year alone, hundreds of local residents have given over 45 hours of testimony in support of greater protections from residential, industrial oil and gas operations at COGCC hearings and over 1,100 complaints were filed.

“Community groups that have been fighting for years to protect our health, safety, and the environment, including our global climate, from the dangers of fracking had high hopes with passage of SB19-181. Unfortunately, the Commission has so far refused to even pause permitting while promulgating new rules, despite public outcry to do so,” said Micah Parkin, Executive Director of 350 Colorado.  “Instead they seem more interested in expediting the permitting process by focusing first on the 500 series rather than doing the necessary research and rulemaking to ensure that Coloradans’ health and safety are protected. This is a disappointing blow, and the Commission should expect a growing public fury if they do not begin taking their new mission more seriously. Coloradans are counting on them.”