Colorado regulators pause hearings on oil, gas rules due to coronavirus concerns

The state agency that is writing and approving rules to carry out an overhaul of how oil and gas are regulated in Colorado is pausing the work while in-person hearings are off the table because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said for now it will postpone hearings on proposed rules to implement Senate Bill 181, signed into law last year. The COGCC and the state Air Quality and Control Commission have passed new regulations, but the bulk of the work remains.

The COGCC staff and the commissioners decided to delay the hearings after talking to the various people and organizations they know will want to be involved, COGCC director Jeff Robbins said Friday. He said there was “universal consensus” about the importance of having face-to-face discussions instead of hashing out issues via video conference.

“These rule-makings are very important. They’re very complex. They have stakeholders that have vastly different perspectives about the right place to land with regards to issues around the rule-makings,” Robbins said.

The feeling was that a face-to-face public setting is more conducive to ensuring that different points of view are heard and that robust debate is held, Robbins said.

On April 13, the COGCC will see how things are going and determine the next step. Initial meetings and procedures that were set for this week to lay the groundwork for formal hearings, scheduled to start April 29, were called off.

“For right now, there’s nothing calendared and we’re just in a wait-and-see period,” Robbins said.

Jeremy Nichols, the climate change energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, said he has mixed feelings about the postponed hearings.

“They want to help us through this crisis, but they’re still approving (drilling) permits,” Nichols said. “Let’s not keep the permit machine going even as they delay rule-making on public health safeguards for Colorado.”

In a letter sent to the COGCC on Friday, seven environmental and community groups said they support a temporary pause but are concerned by calls from the oil and gas industry and some rural local governments for a more broad delay. During the two-week delay, the groups asked the COGCC  to “consider other platforms that would allow online hearings to take place.”

If the hearing on rules is delayed beyond the original date of April 29, the organizations asked the COGCC to delay action on drilling permits.

Most of the proposed rules the COGCC has in the queue are related to what it calls “mission change,” basically significant changes to how oil and gas are regulated to carry out the mandates of SB 181. The new law requires a shift from balancing the development of oil and gas with other concerns to prioritizing public health, safety and the environment.

To carry out that mandate, state agencies are reviewing and writing new rules for a number of different areas, including air quality, underground oil and gas lines, the structural integrity of wells and who gets to weigh in on proposed oil and gas development.

Dan Haley, CEO and president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said in an email that he thinks it’s appropriate to delay the hearings until they can be held in person.

“We think the process will work better, and be more transparent to the public, if it’s done in person, and not through a virtual rulemaking. I think we’ve all experienced the shortcomings of conference calls and video calls in recent days,” Haley said.

The law that requires revamping the oil and gas regulations sets July 1 of this year as the time when a full-time, professional oil and gas commission will replace the current volunteer commission. Robbins said if the new rules aren’t in place by then, the new commission will complete the work.

And Robbins said any permits approved while rule-making is on hold will be approved with criteria intended to align with the goals of SB181.

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