Colorado attorney general sues county on drilling moratorium

By Dan Elliott, Associated Press

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman asked a state court Tuesday to overturn Boulder County's moratorium on oil and gas drilling, accusing the county of openly defying state law and the state Supreme Court.

In this Feb. 13, 2017 file photo, a petroleum industry storage tank borders a ranch, left, near a fossil fuel extraction site, right, with the Front range of the Rocky Mountains rising up in the background, a few miles from the border of Boulder County, in Weld County, near Mead, Colorado. Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman asked a state court Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017 to overturn Boulder County's moratorium on oil and gas drilling, saying it violates state law and a state Supreme Court ruling. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

DENVER (AP) — Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman asked a state court Tuesday to overturn Boulder County's moratorium on oil and gas drilling, accusing the county of openly defying state law and the state Supreme Court.

Boulder County officials refused to back down, saying they will fight the lawsuit and claiming that Coffman is suing residents on behalf of the energy industry.

The suit was filed in Boulder County District Court four days after the Feb. 10 deadline Coffman set for the county commissioners to lift the moratorium or face legal action.

County officials argue the moratorium is legal because its purpose is to give them time to update land use regulations for oil and gas drilling.

Coffman's lawsuit disputed that, noting the moratorium has been in place for five years but the county still hasn't updated the rules.

"It has instead repeatedly extended the moratorium and delayed its rulemaking," the suit said.

In a news release, Coffman defended her decision to file the lawsuit against criticism that she is acting on the industry's behalf.

"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," she said.

Late Tuesday, Coffman's spokeswoman, Annie Skinner, said Coffman "has heard from the constituency that's been negatively impacted" by the moratorium, but Skinner stopped short of saying it was the oil and gas industry.

"The attorney general makes decisions based on the law and not because of any external organization or industry," Skinner said.

Democratic state Sen. Matt Jones, who represents part of Boulder County, also raised that question Tuesday. He sharpened his previous criticism of Coffman, accusing her of using her office and taxpayer money "to intimidate and sue taxpayers at the behest of special interest industries."

Coffman didn't immediately respond to Jones' claim.

Previous attorneys general have sued local governments over actions they considered illegal. Republican Gale Norton, who held the office in the 1990s, said last week 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," Norton said.

The legal showdown between the Republican attorney general and Boulder County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, is the latest eruption in Colorado's longstanding tensions over energy development. Rich oil and gas fields sometimes overlap with fast-growing communities, especially on the Front Range urban corridor, generating complaints over round-the-clock noise, odors, traffic and potential health risks.

Last year, the Colorado Supreme Court tossed out drilling restrictions imposed by Longmont and Fort Collins, ruling that only the state could regulate the industry, not local governments.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Dan Haley issued a statement Tuesday saying that a long-term drilling moratorium is clearly illegal.

"Boulder County shouldn't be surprised that the attorney general cares about the rule of law in Colorado," he said.

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