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Colorado Attorney General Sues Boulder County to End Fracking Ban

Colorado's attorney general is suing Boulder County over its fracking ban that has been in place for the last five years.

Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and the state of Colorado are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The complaint to initiate the lawsuit was received by county officials on Feb. 14, KUNC reported.

The AG's office had been threatening Boulder County with a lawsuit for several weeks over the county's moratorium on oil and gas development in unincorporated areas. The county first adopted the temporary ban back in Feb. 2, 2012 and has extended it several times.

In a Jan. 26 letter to county commissioners, Coffman gave a Feb. 10 deadline to rescind the moratorium as it violates state law. Last May, Colorado's Supreme Court rulings on two cases prohibited local governments from preventing oil and gas development through the use of local bans. In light of the court's decisions, Coffman called Boulder County's continued ban "clearly unlawful."

But Boulder County deputy attorney David Hughes disagrees.

"Our position is that we are complying with state law and if attorney General Coffman just held off and let us complete our process, we think that is a perfectly viable option," Hughes told KUNC. "A lot of the open space that we bought over the years, the mineral rights had already been severed, so the open space doesn't provide protection in those instances."

"In 2012 when the county adopted its regulations, it was looking at smaller well pads and now the trend is for these mega pads, we're looking at 20, 30 40 wells per pad," Hughes added. "Our regulations didn't really look at or address that issue."

As KUNC explains, "after the state Supreme Court rulings, Boulder County rescinded its moratorium on new oil and gas permits that was set to expire in 2018. It was replaced by county commissioners with shorter time-outs, usually four to six months long. Most recently commissioners voted in December 2016 to extend it until at least May 1, 2017, while they revise the county's oil and gas regulations."

But Coffman said in a statement about Tuesday's filing that the county had years to prepare with state law:

"The Boulder County Commissioners responded that they needed yet more time to draft regulations and prepare to accept new applications for oil or gas development. Because five years is more than reasonable time to complete such a project, and because Boulder County continues to operate in clear violation of Colorado law, the Attorney General today is filing suit in Boulder County District Court to compel compliance. It is not the job of industry to enforce Colorado law; that is the role of the Attorney General on behalf of the People of Colorado. Regrettably, Boulder County's open defiance of State law has made legal action the final recourse available to the State."

Incidentally, Coffman's lawsuit came just as the Colorado School of Public Health released a study that found that young Coloradans with "leukemia were 4.3 times more likely to live in the densest area of active oil and gas wells than those with other cancers."

County commissioners were critical of the lawsuit, saying they are already planning two public hearings next month to discuss the adoption of new oil and gas regulations for unincorporated Boulder County.

A statement from the commissioners reads:

"The Colorado Attorney General sent a special valentine to the oil and gas industry today by filing a lawsuit against Boulder County for our working to safeguard our community from the industrial impacts of oil and gas development.

"Drilling proposals of 20 to 40 wells per site are being proposed near residential neighborhoods, schools, parks and recreational areas up and down the Front Range, and we believe it is our responsibility to ensure that we have the strongest possible protections in place for the residents of Boulder County and the world-class environment we have worked hard to protect and preserve.

"It's a sweetheart deal for the oil and gas industry, but a massive waste of Coloradans' tax dollars for the state to sue us on industry's behalf, and we are prepared to defend our right to safeguard the health, safety, and wellbeing of our constituents.

"As we stated when we first responded to the Attorney General's January 26 letter, Boulder County understands its legal constraints on adopting local bans and lengthy moratoria; however, the current moratorium is of a materially shorter duration and is consistent with Colorado law."

Unsurprisingly, the oil and gas industry applauded the AG's legal action.

"It's not about drilling, or fracking, or pipelines, it's about the law. And the law is clear: Long-term moratoriums—and this one is over five years now—are illegal," said Dan Haley, President and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association in a statement. "Boulder County shouldn't be surprised that the Attorney General cares about the rule of law in Colorado."

According to the International Business Times, during her 2014 campaign for AG, "Coffman directly received nearly $20,000 from oil and gas interests—including maximum donations from fossil fuel companies' political action committees. She also was boosted in the 2014 election by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA), which launched a $1.4 million political action committee that supported her candidacy. RAGA that year listed fossil fuel corporations and trade associations among its largest donors."

Democratic lawmakers in the state have denounced the lawsuit.

"We should all be outraged that the Colorado attorney general has chosen to use public tax dollars to bully Boulder County on behalf of the oil and gas industry," Democrat Rep. Jared Polis said in a statement to Denver7. "The oil and gas industry is more than equipped to bring their own lawsuits, and I suspect they have opted not to sue Boulder County because they know Colorado law allows for a short term fracking moratorium. What the attorney general has done today is a purely political waste of money, and it is not legally sound."

Democrat State Sen. Matt Jones also accused Coffman of colluding with the oil and gas industry.

"This is disgraceful. After seeing the Attorney General's and Oil and Gas industry's press releases about the lawsuit sent out almost at the same time, I think it's safe to assume the Attorney General is using the powers of her office and using tax dollars to intimidate and sue taxpayers at the behest of special interest industries," he said. "The question I have for the Attorney General is this: how many oil and gas corporations did she consult with before sending out her threat letter to Boulder County on January 26?"'

The fight between local governments versus oil and gas development runs deep. Last year, environmental groups tried to introduce two statewide measures to appear on Colorado's November ballot.

The first initiative would have amended the state constitution to enable local governments the option to enact regulations more protective of health and safety than those required by the state, largely addressing the Colorado Supreme Court's decision to strike down local fracking bans. The other initiative would create 2,500-foot buffer zones between homes, schools and sensitive areas like playgrounds and water sources, and all new oil and gas development. Both measures failed to make the ballot.

Records show that energy companies spent millions of dollars to stop the anti-fracking measures.

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