Boulder County nears showdown with state over drilling ban

2 min. read
A drill rig near Piceance Creek, Colorado. (Jeff Foster/Flickr)

A drill rig near Piceance Creek, Colorado. (Jeff Foster/Flickr)

By Dan Elliott

Boulder County and Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman were on the brink of a legal showdown Friday over the county's moratorium on oil and gas drilling.

Coffman, a Republican, has set a Friday deadline for the county to rescind the moratorium, saying it contradicts a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that only the state can regulate the industry.

Late Thursday, the heavily Democratic county wouldn't budge.

County Attorney Ben Pearlman said the county is prepared to defend the moratorium in court. He said he believes the measure is legal because its purpose is to give the county time to revise its outdated regulations.

"We've been working diligently on that," he said.

Coffman said the county is wrong.

"Plain and simple, Boulder County is violating state law and has left my office with no option other than to enforce the law," she said in a written statement.

"It would be patently unfair for some local governments to be forced to comply with state law while allowing Boulder to continue with its illegal moratorium," Coffman said.

Boulder has had a moratorium in place since 2012, extending it several times. Commissioners voted in December to extend it until at least May 1.

Regulating the energy industry is a contentious issue in Colorado, where rich oil and gas fields sometimes overlap with growing communities.

In May, the state Supreme Court overturned restrictions imposed by Longmont and Fort Collins, saying local governments have no authority to regulate the industry. That was the ruling Coffman cited when she warned Boulder.

Pearlman said that ruling left room for a moratorium like Boulder's, intended to give officials time to revises their rules.

Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said a moratorium is "a commonly used practice."

"If it goes to court, I think we'd be on the side of Boulder County" and file a friend-of-the-court brief, Mamet said. But he said he hopes Coffman and the county can reach an agreement.

Previous attorneys general have sued local governments over actions they considered illegal. Republican Gale Norton, who held the office in the 1990s, said she filed several lawsuits over local oil and gas restrictions.

"Consistently over the last 20 years or so, local governments have lost every one of those lawsuits," she said.

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