More Local Government Control Over Oil and Gas Operations? Colorado House Says No.

Over the past several years there has been an ongoing debate on whether local governments have the authority to limit or even ban oil and gas operations. In 2012, residents of the City of Longmont voted to approve a ban on hydraulic fracturing within city limits. Similarly, in 2013, Fort Collins voters approved a five year moratorium on fracking within city limits. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association challenged both bans, and the cases reached the Colorado Supreme Court. A recap on the case history and oral arguments can be found in a prior blog, “State or Local for Colorado?” A decision is expected from Colorado’s high court in 2016.

The most recent battle between state and local control of oil and gas operations was fought in the Legislative branch. On March 11, 2016, Representatives Mike Foote, Su Ryden, Jessie Ulibarri and Matt Jones of the Colorado House of Representatives (“House”) introduced House Bill 16-1355 (“HB 1355”) in an attempt to provide local governments with control over the location of oil and gas facilities. HB 1355 declares that “governing bodies of local governments are in the best position to determine the appropriate locations for oil and gas facilities and will properly balance . . . the effects on public health, wildlife, and the environment.” The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) currently has authority over the siting of oil and gas facilities in all jurisdictions in Colorado. HB 1355 states that “statewide siting rules provide an ineffective protection for the public . . . [and] local governments are in the best position to determine the appropriate locations for oil and gas facilities.” Although the bill recognized the existing authority of the COGCC, it emphasized that “the oil and gas industry is not exempt from local governments’ authority to control the siting of oil and gas facilities through existing zoning and land use authority just as they do for every other industry.”

In an attempt to gain more supporters of HB 1355, several last minute amendments were made to the original bill. The original bill proposed an addition to Colorado statutes that would require an operator to “ensure that the location of oil and gas facilities complies with city, town, county, or city and regulations.” The proposed addition to the statute authoritatively stated that “nothing in this section impairs or negates the authority of local governments to regulate the location of oil and gas facilities.”

It became clear that the House would not pass a bill providing local governments with such overarching authority to regulate the location of oil and gas facilities, especially with the Longmont and Fort Collins cases pending before the Supreme Court. Accordingly, the morning of the vote, HB 1355 was amended to remove the language giving local governments broad authority to regulate the location of oil and gas facilities. Consequently, the amended HB 1355 merely restated the current law that oil and gas facilities may be regulated by local governments under current zoning regulations.

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper urged the House not to pass HB 1355, stating his preference that the Legislature wait until the Colorado Supreme Court issues decisions on the pending cases. Ultimately, on April 4, 2016, the watered down version of HB 1355 failed to make it out of the Democratic-controlled House.

Even though HB 1355 was a failed attempt by the Colorado Legislature to provide local governments with the power to regulate oil and gas operations, its introduction is yet another example of the sentiment of many Coloradans that local municipalities should be able to limit or restrict oil and gas operations.
A copy of HB 1355 can be found here.

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Colorado Enters Discussion on Federal Land “Takeover”

Colorado has now joined eight other western states in the ongoing discussion of state assumption of control of federally-managed public lands. This has been a hot button issue among western conservatives since the 1970’s, but the movement has recently gained new momentum with the States of Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada in various stages of developing plans to either study or implement assumption of management of these lands.

Colorado is the first Democratic-leaning state legislature to take action—albeit tepid—to discuss the “takeover.” Earlier this week, the Colorado Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee approved a proposal to study the benefits of assuming control of Colorado’s nearly 24 million acres of federally-managed land. The Committee voted along party lines to approve legislation that would establish the Colorado Federal Land Management Commission. The Commission would be a 15-member body made up of County Commissioners from around the state, but weighted toward representation from Counties dominated by federal public lands.

Opposition to the bill has been strong among elected Democrats and sportsman, conservation, and environmental groups in the state and, as reported by Greenwire, during public comment at the hearing, opponents to the bill outnumbered supporters 3-to-1. Much of the opposition has been focused on the make-up of the Committee, which opponents fear leaves numerous stakeholders out of the planning process. Other opponents raised concern that it would be legally impossible for states to “assume” control federally-managed public lands.

Supporters of the bill countered that the Commission is merely a first step in analyzing the issue. Under the bill, the Commission would prepare two reports to be issued in April 2016 and April 2017. It is only after the reports are completed that the legislature would re-visit the issue.

The bill now heads to the full Republican-controlled Senate, where it is expected to pass. However, the bill will likely face an uphill battle in the Colorado House, which is controlled by Democrats.

To read Greenwire’s coverage (subscription required), see:   http://www.eenews.net/greenwire/2015/04/24/stories/1060017407

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United States Senate Passes Amendment “Supporting” Transfer of Public Lands to States

Last week, the United States Senate passed a largely symbolic budget amendment sponsored by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski (chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee) that “supports” the idea of selling, transferring or trading federally-managed public lands to the states. The idea of western states “taking back” public lands has been around since the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970’s, but in recent years has been gaining new momentum.   In the last 5 years, 8 states, including Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Nevada have “studied” the feasibility of “taking back” or somehow acquiring title to the millions of acres of federally-managed public lands that were reserved to the Union at the time of statehood.

The amendment, S. A. 838 to Senate Resolution 11, is described as “establish[ing] a spending-neutral reserve fund relating to the disposal of certain Federal land,” and conveys no actual authority to transfer lands and does not cover any specific parcels or identify any states by name. Instead, the purpose of the amendment is to demonstrate that “considering such bills is a priority of the Congress” says Robert Dillon, communications director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, as reported by High Country News.   Under the Senate authorization, the chamber’s “support” applies generally to “initiatives to sell or transfer to, or exchange with, a State or local government any Federal land that is not within the boundaries of a National Park, National Preserve, or National Monument.” Voting on the measure was largely split down party lines, with Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado as the lone Western Republican to vote no, joining all of the Western Democrats.

While the idea of states taking title to federally-managed public lands (whether through voluntary transfer or litigation) has been widely viewed as, at best, an unlikely and costly proposition, the idea has gained considerable traction in Western states with large percentages of federally-managed public lands. Utah has taken the idea the farthest, passing a law in 2012 demanding the transfer of approximately 20 million acres of federal land. In each fiscal year since 2012, the Utah legislature has allocated taxpayer money to study the issue and devise legal strategies. Most recently, in the 2015 Utah legislative session, the state passed a law allocating considerable funds to pay outside legal counsel to help devise a legal strategy and, potentially, bring litigation against the federal government. The state has recently issued an RFP soliciting bids for this work.

The issue has raised considerable debate in Utah and across the West, with most casual observers wondering about the legality and feasibility of the proposal. While the State of Utah staunchly defends the basic legality of its law authorizing the “take-back” of federal lands, most scholars disagree. According to John Ruple of the University of Utah College of Law, “The [United States] Constitution gives the federal government the authority to retain and manage that land.” Proponents of “taking back” federal lands argue that state enabling acts require federal transfer of public lands to the states. However, as stated by Mr. Ruple, states’ enabling acts do not create an obligation to “return” lands to state management; instead, in the enabling acts, “the state is disclaiming any future claims to federal lands.”

The Senate’s recent action in approving Amendment 838 does not affect the fundamental Constitutional question of state assumption of federal land. It does, however, signal a willingness on the part of the legislative branch to dive into what has, until recently, been a debate largely confined to Western state houses.

High Country News has an excellent series of articles covering the full range of the public land transfer debate:

https://www.hcn.org/articles/utah-bill-would-push-land-transfer-debate-to-federal-court

https://www.hcn.org/articles/western-states-trying-to-take-back-federal-lands-get-a-boost-from-the-u-s-senate

For the State of Utah’s position on its federal land transfer law, see:

http://publiclands.utah.gov/current-projects/transfer-of-public-lands-act/

The University of Utah College of Law’s analysis, authored by John Ruple, can be found at:

http://content.lib.utah.edu:81/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/utlawrev&CISOPTR=9160

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