For almost a month last spring, Brighton business owners found out just how important the oil and gas industry was to their town. In March, shortly after the Brighton City Council put a four-month moratorium on oil and gas development — to some residents and business owners, seemingly out of the blue, with no pending applications for development — the oil and gas industry reacted, showing the tiny town what that could mean economically.
“You have people like us, the motels, the restaurants, all these people who were doing a lot of business with oil and gas here, going ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing poking a stick in the eye of the major industry here?’” said Steve Whiteside, owner of Whiteside’s Clothing and Boots, 855 E. Bridge St., Brighton, who supplies energy employees with their industry-required flame-resistant clothing in town. “Yeah, we felt the effects.”
The ill-timed ban seemed to punctuate the moratoriums and bans that were ongoing throughout the Front Range, with five votes in the previous election in November 2013. But Brighton was the first such city to induce the rancor of oil and gas-related businesses that helped fuel the local economy.
The move prompted a bit of an uprising, and some local oil and gas-related businesses opted to do business elsewhere. Weeks later, the council rescinded the order under assurances from the industry that they would not submit any applications for development, so the city could buy time to study the effects it could have on its unique municipal water system that is almost entirely reliant on a series of shallow groundwater wells, ditches and streams in and around Barr Lake.
In that time, the city worked out a deal with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, creating an order that creates larger setbacks surrounding those wells and natural waterways that supply Brighton’s water. The new boundaries extend setbacks beyond state rules because of the unique circumstances.
“We met with operators, outlined the desire to protect the water System … then fleshed out details,” COGCC director Matt Lepore told the commission in late July. “It’s taken the better part of two months. It’s been a collaborative process, again with various stakeholders engaged in the process all the way.”
For many who hadn’t been completely advised on the city’s happenings, a four-month ban on oil and gas drilling seemed almost ridiculous given where they were — almost in the heart of the Wattenberg Field, where oil and gas drilling had been a mainstay since the field was discovered in 1970.
Kristen Chernosky, spokeswoman for the city, said it wasn’t really a ban. Chernosky wouldn’t answer questions other than through email and city officials deferred comment on the situation to her. It turns out the apparent knee-jerk reaction wasn’t so much about fear-mongering as it was a legitimate concern for the city’s water supply. The council opted for the “timeout” after hearing the industry’s intention in town, Chernosky wrote.
“Residents within the city of Brighton have been receiving leasing offers from the oil and gas industry,” Chernosky wrote. “The city also receives frequent notices from the COGCC about drilling applications in our area. … As a result of the dramatic increase in oil and gas activity in our area, the city of Brighton put forward a four-month “timeout” to allow us to revise our oil and gas regulations.
“Our oil and gas regulations had not been revised for eight years. The city council believed the timeout was unnecessary after the industry agreed to give the city time to update our regulations by voluntarily refraining from proposing oil and gas development within the city limits.”
Reaction to the event, however, was pronounced and potentially fueled by a growing resentment of an anti-industry sentiment across the Front Range. For those working in the oil and gas industry, as a matter of fact, it was time to do business someplace else.
“Some of the oil related businesses took offense in a big way and said to the city of Brighton, ‘If that’s your attitude about our industry, then we won’t do business in your town anymore,’” Whiteside said. “The whole kerfuffle got squared away, but it came to blows a bit.”
But in the two weeks it took to lift that temporary timeout, local businesses felt the pain.
Holly Hansen, president/CEO of the Greater Brighton Chamber of Commerce, noticed the effects almost immediately. Soon, her members were calling.
“I eat out in Brighton probably every day. And if you go on a normal lunch hour almost anywhere, you’ll see a long line of oil and gas employees,” Hansen said.
Hansen said officials at Halliburton and Conoco-Phillips tried to get the city to back off its moratorium to no avail. Word came down to employees. Brighton was suddenly off limits.
“There was just nothing,” Hansen said. “It was dead. … Something didn’t feel quite right. I had downtown merchants who weren’t really following what was going on (at city hall), in the first couple of days, saying, ‘I’m $1,000 down from last year at this time. What’s going on?’”
The oil and gas industry in that area of southern Weld County is huge. Halliburton, which is an oil and gas service company working with the likes of Anadarko Petroleum, has a massive facility just a couple of miles north in Fort Lupton, and had recently invested more than $40 million to stay in the area, after initially seeking to move further north in the county.
Several oil and gas employees had called Brighton home, and the time they spent away from Brighton business had an impact. The town also was reliant on other industry-related businesses.
“There was a gas station in town that had a sign saying, “We love Halliburton,” said Jared Whipple, an area resource coordinator for Halliburton, on a recent lunch at the Philly Cheese Steak at the Pavillions in downtown Brighton.
Shortly after the industry showed its collective might, the council agreed to rescind the ban. Meanwhile, the city would get to work with the COGCC on the concerns of its water system.
“Actually, as soon as the (measure) was revoked, business did come back to Brighton, and that made companies really happy,” Hansen said. “But also, and I talked at length with folks from Halliburton, they made it clear they appreciated Brighton and the support the town gives to families of employees. The overall kind of lesson was that oil and gas has to work in tangent with the city because it’s such an important industry.”
Business owners, while lauding any agreement the city could make, feel that cloud has lifted.
“From a business point of view, it was a bit shortsighted,” Whiteside said of the council’s ban. “It was presumptive, and I’m sure all with good intentions. But you know, people that aren’t really involved in (oil and gas) business maybe don’t realize how business works. It’s just such a key part of the economy in the area.
“It was a little frustrating, but government oftentimes proves they’re really disconnected from what’s reality. I’d think in this particular issue, they might have stopped and talked to a few people first.”
Small business owner Gary Mikes, who was opposed to any ban, spoke out against it to the council.
“It just sends a message that, ‘We don’t want your business, go away,’” said Mikes, who said his refrigeration business wasn’t directly affected by the temporary ban. “I look at it as a microcosm of what will happen statewide if we vote for no oil and gas exploration. These people will pack up and go to other places like Texas and Oklahoma, and we’ll be left holding our hands with nothing.”
The event laid the groundwork the city council was looking for in protecting the city’s unique water resources.
A NEW DAY
Brighton’s water system includes about 11 shallow groundwater wells near ponds and Barr Lake, both of which serve as water storage for the town, as well as some streams and ditches that are integral parts of the city’s water supply, COGCC Director Matt Lepore told the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission at its monthly meeting held July 28 in Greeley.
“The circumstances in Brighton are unique,” Lepore said. “The regulatory agencies have crafted a unique response and solution that is appropriate we believe in these circumstances. The intent is this is a site-specific response to these set of circumstances.”
The agreement — which is not intended in any way to set a precedent for other municipalities throughout the state — will prohibit drilling around several natural water sources and shallow groundwater wells that make up a majority of the city’s municipal water system.
The commission unanimously approved the order preventing drilling from 500 feet around water wells and 300 feet from the city’s many streams, ponds and ditches, all of which make up about 70 percent of the city’s water.
Lepore explained that the agreement also called for groundwater sampling — once before and twice after drilling — for all drilling locations within a half-mile of water wells or from 301 to 500 feet of a river or a stream, or a ditch.
“All the parties with a stake in this have been engaged and crafted this order together and presented it as a joint presentation for approval,” Lepore told the commission. “This represents a great partnership between the state, municipality and operators. We all came together, worked hard and identified the issue, and we’re pleased to put this order in front of you and ask you to adopt it.”
COGCC member Tommy Holton, who also is mayor of neighboring Fort Lupton, said he could understand the council’s concerns about drilling, especially being new and having so much mis-information out there.
He said the agreement that came out of the mess, while not at all to be used as a template for other cities, showed that all entities could work together to come up with an amicable agreement.
Mikes said he was pleased to hear that the parties could come together on a plan.
“I’m encouraged they came to compromise. It’s shows the stakeholders they can come together,” Mikes said. “It’s 100 times better than an outright ban, not even considering the economic impacts to what happens when you totally ban something.”