Aurora councilwoman wants oil and gas permit moratorium as controversial bill devising local control works through Legislature

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AURORA | Amidst possible changes from the state legislature shifting oil and gas control over to local governmental bodies, Aurora City Council member Nicole Johnston is proposing a six-month moratorium on oil and gas developments in the city. 

She provided a draft of the measure to the Sentinel Wednesday.

The proposed ordinance, if approved, would disallow approval of oil and gas applications unless an operator agreement is met, much like a system in Broomfield. Those agreements would vary from site to site, Johnston said. 

Members of the Aurora City Council Federal, State & Intergovernmental Relations policy committee — council members Charlie Richardson, Marsha Berzins and Crystal Murillo — will hear the proposed ordinance on Friday.

Johnston said the measure will likely move to the council’s study session and regular meeting on March 18.

Johnston alluded to a possible ordinance the day before, saying it would be “an ordinance on how we process and approve applications in order to meet the new Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission priorities and policy requirements that the Legislature is anticipated to set in its 2019 session.”

There are currently nine oil and gas applications under review in Aurora; they include a total of 74 proposed wells.

The state bill was up for its first public hearing in the state Senate Tuesday. After 12 hours of testimony late into Tuesday night, the measure was passed by its first committee.

“We need to meet these new standards, we need an ordinance to address how we are going to process and accept, or deny, applications,” she said.

Notably, the state measure would change the mission of state regulators to focus on health and environment rather than fostering gas and oil development, the subject of a recent and controversial Colorado Supreme Court decision.

Johnston testified in favor of the bill on Tuesday. She said was representing herself, and not the city.

The bill would allow local governments to oversee oil and gas drilling in their jurisdictions, “including land use, surface impacts, siting and nuisance,” according to a summary of the measure.

Democratic House officials said Thursday that the bill as written would “grandfather” existing wells, applying only to new development.

Johnston started getting involved in local government after discovering oil and gas development was taking place near her home in northeast Aurora. She was appointed to the city’s oil and gas commission and later elected to city council to represent Ward II, where a lot of the city’s oil and gas development is taking place.

In January, she called up a hearing for the Jamaso oil pad, which was administratively approved to allow Jamaso LLC to drill up to 16 horizontally mined oil and gas wells on a 15-acre property between East Sixth Avenue and I-70 near Powhaton Road, according to city documents. That property is contained in a 57-acre parcel owned by Jamaso, and it meets state setback requirements and all city land use regulations.

While the site had met all state standards, Johnston said she wanted to give a voice to the residents that live near the site. At a previous meeting, city legal staff advised that the city could face a lawsuit that they would likely lose if the approval was revoked by the body because it had already been approved by the state.

Under SB19-181, oil and gas development would have to be approved by a local governing body before being granted state approval, if a community opted in to operating that way.

At a press conference in support of the state bill on Tuesday Johnston called on lawmakers to pass the bill so that local lawmakers hands won’t be tied when it comes to approving applications.

It’s unclear how local counties would handle the issue.

Adams County approved a moratorium on new oil and gas development applications in the month leading up to the 2018 November election when voters decided no on Prop. 112, which proposed significantly increasing setbacks across the state.

That measure ultimately failed.

Adams County Commissioner Eva Henry said she is not proposing a moratorium at this time because it is possible the COGCC will institute a moratorium, which would render a county-level action obsolete, she said. Henry added that she has not seen an influx of operator permit requests in recent weeks or months.

Adams and Arapahoe counties ranked fourth and fifth in the state for oil production last year, though production in northern Colorado Weld County dwarfed the rest of the state. Adams County ranked 12th in natural gas and coal-bed methane production last year, and Arapahoe County ranked 14th.