In the last several years, municipal and county governments have thrust themselves into some of the nation’s most contentious legal-policy debates by imposing regulatory mandates and restrictions on business conduct. New York City famously tried to shrink soda serving sizes. San Francisco has dictated that ads for “sugary drinks” include health warnings. Philadelphia has prohibited businesses from asking job applicants about their salary history. And numerous cities and counties have enacted restrictions or bans on oil and natural gas extraction from shale plays within their borders.
That last type of local regulation has instigated many battles between city or county government and state lawmakers. The latest fight—between the State of Colorado and the County of Boulder—is about to come to a head. In a January 26 letter sent to Boulder County’s three commissioners, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman has given the county until Friday, February 10 to rescind its “moratorium” on accepting new applications for oil and gas development. If the county fails to act, Attorney General Coffman has pledged to file suit.
A number of Colorado localities, including Longmont and Fort Collins, delighted radical environmental activists by restricting or banning oil and gas extraction despite the huge economic benefits such activities have generated in Colorado. Opponents of local oil and gas regulation have correctly argued that city or county ordinances create an inefficient patchwork of rules that increases costs and deters development.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association filed legal challenges against the Longmont and Fort Collins ordinances and last year, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that such bans on oil and gas extraction were unlawful. According to Colorado’s highest court, such local restrictions “impeded the effectuation of a state interest” in creating uniform, statewide rules for oil and gas extraction and are thus preempted under the state constitution. An August 2016 WLF Legal Backgrounder discusses those court rulings, as well as decisions on similar issues from other states, in greater detail.
Undeterred, Colorado fracking foes placed their hopes on certifying a ballot initiative for the November 2016 election that would ban fracking throughout the state. The initiative proponents failed to gather the required number of signatures, and the measure was excluded from the ballot.
Despite that result, and notwithstanding the ruling from the Colorado Supreme Court, the Boulder commissioners remained undaunted and recently extended the county’s fracking moratorium until May 2017.
Boulder has vowed to oppose Attorney General Coffman’s lawsuit, despite having no legal leg to stand on. Doing so is an unfortunate waste of Boulder taxpayers’ money and would only delay the county’s ability to enjoy the economic benefits that the rest of Colorado has been enjoying over the past decade.
Kudos to Attorney General Coffman for standing up for separation of powers and the rule of law, fundamental principles that far too many activist politicians at the local level disdain today.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page.