After 8 years, Boulder finally proposes fracking rules

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Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021

A new council will on Tuesday get its first look at rules for potential fracking operations, eight years after a previous city council passed a temporary ban on drilling within city limits.

Boulder has no specific rules for oil and gas activity, relying on a small section of land use code pertaining to “mining industries,” which are allowed in areas zoned for agriculture or industrial manufacturing. Roughly 10% of city land was zoned thusly in 2018.

State law passed in 2019 allows municipal governments to regular surface impacts of drilling. Subsurface activity is still the purview of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but things like location, water quality, noise, odor, emissions and more can be dictated (within reason) by local authority.

Oil and gas activity in Boulder is extremely unlikely to occur due to rules governing how far wells have to be from homes. There are no active sites in the city. A well at Diagonal Crossing is landmarked, having been plugged in 1992.

“There are very few properties that are eligible” for drilling, staff wrote in notes to council. “Nevertheless, staff has developed new regulations on oil and gas operations to ensure that the public health, safety, and welfare and environment and wildlife resources are protected against surface impacts from oil and gas operation.”

Among the proposed regulations are:

  • A 2,000-foot setback from homes, schools or childcare facilities (2,500 for sites with multiple well pads)
  • Required notice to all residents, business and property owners within 1 mile of a proposed site
  • Adherence to the city’s noise ordinance
  • A required neighborhood meeting following application
  • $3,680 application fee, plus hourly and consultant fees
  • Submittal of plans required for other types of site review, including tree inventories, a landscape plan, shadow analysis, outdoor lighting plan, traffic study, master utility plan, weed control plan analysis on impacts to surrounded land, dust suppression plan and more.

Planning Board also recommended reverse setbacks. That is, no homes could be located within a certain distance of a planned or active fracking site.

If an application were to be received, it would be subject to the city’s use review process. That means Planning Board would have to approve an operation, and its decision would be subject to call-up from city council.

The rules are being approved on first reading, with 15 minutes set aside for discussion. A public hearing and final vote is scheduled for Dec. 14. The measure will have to be passed on an emergency basis, requiring six votes, in order to into effect before the current moratorium expires.

The first moratorium was passed by city council in 2013. Later that year, voters extended it through 2018, and council has passed two additional extensions since that time. The current moratorium expires on Dec. 31.

Also on Tuesday…

Boulder’s next mayor and mayor pro tem will be picked. Councilmen Aaron Brockett and Bob Yates, who both joined council in 2015, are vying for the largely symbolic position. Councilwoman Rachel Friend is the only one who has expressed interest in serving as mayor pro tem, a one-year position.

The mayor and pr tem do not have any more authority or power than other council members; their votes are equal. They do, however, help set council’s agenda, run the meetings and occasionally serve as the public face of Boulder.

This will be Boulder’s last peer-appointed mayor, elected by a majority of council. Starting in 2023, voters will pick a mayor via ranked choice voting.

Vaping tax reconsidered

In a bid to curb teen vaping, Boulderites OK’d a tax on electronic smoking devices in 2019. Despite specific language on the city’s own website that marijuana would be exempt, staff earlier this year argued the 40% tax should apply to all devices, regardless of what they are used to smoke.

Pot shops pushed back, arguing that the devices are inherently different and teen customers were screened out anyway, since dispensaries don’t admit anyone under 21. Council tasked the city’s Cannabis Licensing and Advisory Board to research possible exemptions for marijuana retailers.

Staff is recommending two routes for exemption:

  • Exemptions for specific devices intended only for marijuana use, based on manufacturing details, patents and marketing. This would require a high level of staff review and may result in confusion for consumers, since similar products would have wildly different pricing due to the tax.
  • Exempt any products that do not contain nicotine or tobacco. This would be easier from an administrative perspective (though it would require enforcement or audits) but would leave refillable products exempt — meaning customers could buy them more cheaply from dispensaries (assuming they’re over 21) but then refill them with nicotine or tobacco.

Another option is for Boulder to go back to voters in 2022 and ask them if the tax should be applied to vaping devices meant for marijuana.

Council will weigh in Tuesday on its preferred alternative.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

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