CO - An Accidental City Council Meeting Encounter with ConocoPhillips

Mother Out Front Maria Ogneva found herself at an Aurora City Council meeting regarding ConocoPhillips and was left with questions about how the process worked with 300 oil wells in the balance.

On Monday, June 10th, I got to attend an odd public hearing at the Aurora City Council on the topic of adopting an Operator Agreement (OA) for ConocoPhillips, which would allow it to drill up to 300 oil wells in Aurora.

What made it so odd was that it was advertised as just one of the items on the agenda, but instead it was a 4 hour meeting, dominated by presentations from the company and its legal team, followed by public comment, and then followed by 30 minutes in which all other business was addressed. I’m not sure people who went to the meeting knew they were going to a public hearing, unless they were going to speak.

During public comments, there were more people speaking in favor of the bill vs. against it, and they were all employees and contractors of Conoco. One by one, they mentioned that they weren’t paid to be there, but it’s clear that there is bias and even if you are not paid to be there, it’s probably not a bad career move to attend. Timing was also not in favor of the opposition to the OA: they started with “pro” comments, and at the end of the 4 hour stretch, most people had already left. It was a bit of a game of attrition. Traditionally, a fair public comment period would alternate comments, or alternate in groups of comments.

The whole affair felt like a rushed act in the middle of the night. This was the first and only public hearing about a major decision (7x increase in oil wells), followed immediately by a vote. By contrast, every other new piece of legislation I’ve worked with at the State level gets several hearings and readings in the State House and Senate. It’s like the Aurora City Council knew they were trying to sneak something nefarious in and they had to do it before people realized what had happened. It seemed like a circumvention of the legislative process and complete lack of transparency for citizens. It felt like taking public comment was a formality at this point because with only one hearing, there wouldn’t be room to adjust and course correct before a vote. 

Several times, when questions were asked of Conoco representatives, they said they weren’t authorized to make a certain call. So why take public comment if you can’t do anything about it? Why not wait to take the vote later, after exploring responses to public criticism? It’s clear why there was a rush -- they were looking to implement it before SB181 rules have been established. SB181 was clear on allowing municipalities to tailor local solutions that benefit welfare and health of citizens in favor of economic activity. This binding contract would be signed before COGCC rulemaking hearings in just a few weeks. This action by City Council and ConocoPhillips seems like a direct affront to the law of Colorado. SB181 is supposed to protect citizens from situations precisely like this. Since new COGCC guidelines haven’t been established yet, the proposal’s “Best Practices” were based on looser guidelines and lower levels from the prior COGCC, which was much more industry friendly.

Let’s consider why this proposal needs more time to be considered. One of the proposed wells is at a Federal Superfund site, where any accident would release incredibly high amounts of toxins into the air and water. Many of the wells are within a quarter mile of existing homes—and who knows how far from future homes? Turns out, the burden of learning about lines and wells under your own home is on you, the homebuyer. There is no disclosure requirement by the builder.

The thing that really got me was the waiver of recrimination, which means that if there is new information discovered or introduced, the contract can’t be renegotiated. The city of Aurora is now locked into something they don’t even know the impact of—and if there are any delays in the production schedule, it’s charged $1,000 per day (a deal which is not reciprocal, by the way—Conoco doesn’t owe anything to Aurora). And to really put a nail in the coffin of democracy, oversight and public discourse, there is a stipulation that says the city “shall not protest, request a hearing, oppose, or object in any forum to any permits, applications, or similarly related approvals related to the Operator’s oil and gas operations or development of any new wells or well sites.” If this agreement was so great, why impose this gag order?

- by Mother Out Front Maria Ogneva


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