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Colorado oil, gas regulators OK rules to limit flood damage, reject request for local powers

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DENVER — The commission that oversees oil and gas regulation in Colorado adopted new rules Monday designed to limit spills during major floods like the one that struck the Front Range in 2013. But the panel rejected a request that it grant local government the authority to impose stricter rules.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission also rejected suggestions that it try to discourage companies from drilling wells or installing storage tanks in flood-prone areas.

One official said those questions can be addressed in the commission's normal permitting process.

The rules require that all new wells be equipped with technology allowing them to be shut down remotely in case floodwaters keep crews from getting to a site. New and existing oilfield tanks and other equipment will have to be anchored to resist toppling or floating away. Operators also must install barriers to protect equipment from flood debris.

The rules were approved after five hours of testimony and debate that renewed Colorado's long-running argument over whether local government should have a say over the oil and gas industry, especially where wells, tanks and other equipment are located.

The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which represents five counties and 22 towns in north-central Colorado, asked the commission to recognize that local governments have the authority to restrict oil and gas drilling near waterways. The conservation group Western Resource Advocates made a similar argument.

Commission member Mike King, who is also executive director of the state Department of Natural Resources, said state law gives the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission the power to decide where wells can be drilled and tanks can be installed. "It's ours," he said.

Last week, a task force created by Gov. John Hickenlooper also rejected calls to give local governments more power over siting decisions. The task force did recommend giving municipalities more ability to comment on state decisions about where oil and gas facilities are located.

King said local governments should have a role in the decision-making. Commission Chairman Tom Compton said local governments do have a part in the new flood rules because the state will accept a city or county's designation of a flood plain if it's bigger than the state or federal designation.

Most of the rules apply to facilities in a 100-year flood plain. A 100-year flood is a deluge so severe there is only a 1-in-100 chance of it occurring in any year.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2013, file photo, a crude oil storage tank lies on its side in flood water along the South Platte River in Weld County, Colo. State regulators are preparing to impose new rules to keep oil and gas wells more secure after spills blamed on the catastrophic Colorado flood of 2013. (AP Photo/John Wark, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 17, 2013, file photo, a crude oil storage tank lies on its side in flood water along the South Platte River in Weld County, Colo. State regulators are preparing to impose new rules to keep oil and gas wells more secure after spills blamed on the catastrophic Colorado flood of 2013. (AP Photo/John Wark, File)

Matt Sura, an attorney who was a member of Hickenlooper's task force, represented Western Resource Advocates at Monday's hearing. Sura urged the commission to add language to the flood rules that would encourage companies to keep oil and gas equipment out of flood plains if it was feasible.

The new rules don't talk about where wells and other facilities could be located except to say that pits holding wastewater from oil and gas operations may no longer be put in a 100-year flood plain.

Matt Lepore, director of the commission, said the staff wanted to focus on mitigating flood damage, not the location of wells and tanks. Lepore said any questionable location issues could be dealt with in the regular process of approving permits.

He said he was frustrated that some local governments were asking for rule changes near the end of a long process.

"I don't think it's fair to the commission or the community to put these down two days before the hearing," he said.

The new rules also require oil companies to give the state a list of their equipment in any 100-year flood plain and to keep an emergency response plan.

The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission decided to review its flood rules after heavy rains pushed rivers out of their banks along the Front Range in September 2013.

More than 48,000 gallons of oil and 43,000 gallons of polluted water spilled from overturned or damaged tanks during the flooding. About 2,650 wells were shut down, but officials said no significant leaks came directly from them.

Nine people were killed in the flooding, and a 10th died in the recovery effort. State officials put the total damage at $3 billion.


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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: FILE - In this Sept. 18, 2013, file photo, an oil well pump site is reflected in flood waters near Greeley, Colo. The commission that oversees oil and gas regulations in Colorado is expected to vote Monday, March 2, 2015, on new rules designed to limit spills in the event of major flooding like what hit the Front Range and eastern plains in 2013.  (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)
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