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Superior Looks Toward Oil and Gas Regulation in Wake of Rocky Flats Drilling Scare

November 22, 2018 GMT

Superior’s temporary — and ill-fated — brush with oil and gas has made a lasting impression on the town.

Though United Kingdom-based drilling firm Highlands Natural Resources Corp. dropped its plans to drill within the town’s 4-square-mile border last week, the area remains open for future applications, town officials say, and the community is wasting no time shoring up its slim regulations ahead of another drilling proposal.

The first step likely will be to enact a drilling moratorium — a familiar initiative among its fracking-averse east Boulder County neighbors — ahead of plans to work with lawyers to beef up drilling rules, town documents suggest.

The proposed stay is on the books for next week’s Board of Trustees meeting, as well as a vote to hire oil and gas attorney Matt Sura to come on board as special counsel.

“We just felt like the Highlands proposal was a real wake-up call for us and we were fortunate it was withdrawn,” Mayor Clint Folsom said Wednesday. “Now we’re going to take this opportunity to look at our current regulations and see how they can be improved.”

The company last month applied to the state for a spacing permit for wells on a 2,560-acre site with plans to horizontally drill underneath the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge.

One of the applications would have allowed for drilling up to 31 wells on a small undeveloped portion of Superior situated at the intersection of McCaslin Boulevard and Colo. 128 — the proposal was dropped hours after residents arrived at a town hall meeting en masse to decry the plans.

Days later, the company withdrew all of its applications to drill underneath Rocky Flats.

The Superior site initially slated for drilling — and potentially open for future applications — sits next to a town-owned 500,000-gallon water tank, just up the road from the town’s largest residential development, Rock Creek.

“To me there are a number of avenues we should pursue,” Superior resident Tim Howard said of the town’s approach to oil and gas reform, including pushing for a pollution tax similar to what voters in Boulder and Lafayette approved earlier this month.

He added that there should be some research around standards from a best management practice perspective — “ensuring that there is a requirement around traffic and health and safety impacts.

“Superior is a little valley and it’s effectively enclosed, so any type of drilling is going to result in (volatile organic compounds) sort of just hanging there,” he added.

Apart from heralding the end to Superior’s drilling-free borders — a condition punctuated by the town’s scant references to oil and gas in its code — and its proximity to large-scale housing, the now-defunct designs to drill horizontally across Rocky Flats prompted familiar fears among residents and advocates. The portion of Rocky Flats between Denver and Boulder was converted to a wildlife refuge — a decision at the heart of several lawsuits — after a $7.7 billion Superfund cleanup of the plant that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs throughout the Cold War.

Just last week, Front Range legislators and more than two dozen advocacy groups from across Colorado and beyond sent a letter to the Department of Energy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service demanding an immediate halt to public recreation at the refuge .

Officials say the recent foray into Superior likely portends more of the same, as new drilling technology enables companies to drill further west and nearer to residential districts.

“The situation is that (oil and gas formations) lie underneath the whole Rocky Mountain Front Range,” Broomfield Mayor Randy Ahrens said Wednesday, “so it’s inevitable that people with the technology are eventually going to try to take advantage and access those minerals.”

If drilling does eventually come to Superior, officials say the town’s regulations could mirror those of surrounding communities like Erie and Broomfield.

In Broomfield, Ahrens said, the city utilizes memorandum of understanding agreements that allow for tank-less sites where pipelines feed to facilities miles from its border.

Similarly in Erie — where town officials recently negotiated a controversial operator agreement with Crestone Peak Resources to move drilling to the town’s fringes and settle lasting litigation with the company — officials have opted to negotiate regulations with the industry rather than attempt to ban them outright.

Lafayette and Erie both have enacted oil and gas moratoriums in recent months, and in each instance the industry has responded warily.

“Regulatory processes at the local and state level can be complicated and filled with important technical nuances that require a good amount of conversation,” Colorado Oil and Gas Association spokesman Scott Prestidge said in a prepared statement Wednesday.

“Whether it’s the town of Superior or any jurisdiction for that matter, we ask that industry be included in those conversations,” he continued. “Moratoria are generally unnecessary, as a healthy dialogue can take place, and local rules can be adjusted, without enacting a moratorium.”

Anthony Hahn: 303-473-1422, hahna@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/_anthonyhahn