Boulder County keeps drilling moratorium despite warning

By Dan Elliott, Associated Press

Boulder County did not drop its moratorium on oil and gas drilling Friday as Attorney General Cynthia Coffman demanded, a county official said, potentially setting up a court battle.

In this Aug. 12, 2015 file photo, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman speaks during a news conference in Durango, Colo. Boulder County and Coffman are on the brink of a showdown over the county's moratorium on oil and gas drilling. Coffman, a Republican, has set a Friday, Feb. 10, 2017, deadline for the county to rescind the moratorium, saying it contradicts a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that only the state can regulate the industry. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP, File)

DENVER (AP) — Boulder County did not drop its moratorium on oil and gas drilling Friday as Attorney General Cynthia Coffman demanded, a county official said, potentially setting up a court battle.

Coffman, a Republican, told the heavily Democratic county last month the moratorium contradicts a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that only the state can regulate the industry. She warned she would file a lawsuit if county officials didn't rescind it by Friday.

County officials say the moratorium is legal and is scheduled to stay in place until at least May 1 while they update their land-use regulations for oil and gas.

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 He said he believes the measure is legal because its purpose is to give the county time to revise its outdated regulations.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."

Boulder has had a moratorium in place since 2012, extending it several times.

Democratic state Sen. Matt Jones, who represents part of Boulder County, accused Coffman of acting "at the behest of oil and gas companies." He made the statement during a debate on the Senate floor.

"Oil and gas companies have a lot of resources to sue. They have chosen not to," Jones said in an interview after the debate. "She chose to sue so they could drill in Boulder County. So she has done it at their behalf."

Coffman declined to respond to Jones' allegation. Her spokeswoman, Annie Skinner, declined to say whether Coffman had spoken with any energy industry representatives before deciding to challenge the moratorium.

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 the 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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