Governor: Oil, Gas Rules Must Protect Mineral Owners’ Rights

DENVER (AP) — Any attempt to give local governments more control over oil and gas drilling in Colorado must protect the rights of people who own underground mineral rights, Gov. John Hickenlooper said Friday.

Some people have owned or leased those rights for decades, long before Colorado’s growing cities spread onto land above rich oil and gas deposits, Hickenlooper said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“What right does government have to take that person’s lease away from them?” he said. “Through no fault of their own, the march of suburbanization, suddenly their lease is worth less than it was.”

Surface owners’ property rights should also be protected, Hickenlooper said, adding that energy companies are required to pay for damage. Noise, dust and other effects should also be taken into account, he said.

Asked if he would support stronger compensation rules for surface owners, the governor said he would want to see the specifics. “I certainly wouldn’t go there without having something in front of me and making sure it’s fair to all concerned,” he said.

Hickenlooper spoke on the same day that his oil and gas task force submitted nine recommendations for easing tension created by the oil and gas industry in the state, often when wells are drilled near homes and schools.

Most Colorado wells use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which pumps a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals to break up underground formations and release oil and gas. Public concern about the health, safety and environmental effects has worsened the tensions.

The task force suggested giving local governments a consulting role in the location of large oil and gas facilities, such as wells and storage tanks, in urban areas. But proposals to give cities and counties the power to make their own rules didn’t get the necessary two-thirds vote to become a recommendation.

That brought criticism from many, including at least two people on the 21-member task force — co-chairwoman Gwen Lachelt and member Matt Sura.

Hickenlooper said the criticism was unfair and that the panel made good progress toward easing the state’s conflicts.

Other recommendations in the panel’s final report include expanding the staffs of state agencies that regulate oil and gas and monitor public health; creating an oil and gas information clearinghouse; studying ways to reduce heavy truck traffic to and from oilfield sites; and asking the Legislature to endorse new state rules on pollution.

Hickenlooper said he would not tell the Legislature or regulators whether or not the recommendations should be enacted. But he said he supported them. “I think all nine of them make a lot of sense,” he said.

He defended the state’s health and safety protections and said Colorado’s oil and gas regulations are among the strongest in the nation.

“Is it perfect? Are we done? No,” he said. “My guess is … in the years to come we’ll have higher standards still.”

Other states are struggling with how to regulate oil and gas as fracking spreads. New York banned fracking last year, but Hickenlooper has said a ban wouldn’t work in Colorado because it would hurt a valuable industry and leave the state vulnerable to lawsuits alleging an improper “taking” of energy companies’ property.

In New York, fracking would have occurred relatively close to aquifers, natural underground water reservoirs, Hickenlooper said. Fracking wells in Colorado are a mile away from aquifers, he said.

There have been no instances where the fracking process itself has contaminated water, only cases in which the lining of a well has failed or when chemicals were spilled above ground, he said.

The state has come down hard on energy companies for those kinds of incidents, Hickenlooper said. “In those cases, we are very, very rigorous,” he said.

By Dan Elliott, AP Writer

(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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