500-foot drilling buffer approved

Colorado regulators adopted Monday what the state Department of Natural Resources says are the nation’s strongest rules for minimizing impacts of oil and gas development near homes and other occupied structures.

But in a reflection of the controversial and complex nature of new drilling setback rules adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, they also were assailed by some as being too loophole-ridden, while the industry warned they would negatively affect energy development.

The commission voted 8–1 to establish 500-foot minimum setbacks that can be waived under certain circumstances.

A commission hearing would be required of anyone seeking to drill fewer than 1,000 feet from schools, hospitals, nursing homes, prisons and child care centers.

Companies now can drill as close as 150 feet from homes in rural areas and 350 feet from high-density neighborhoods. The new rules would prohibit any drilling within 200 feet.

The commission passed the measure amid increasing public concern as drilling nears more urbanized Front Range communities.

“Although not perfect, it does improve the likelihood that the public is going to be safer than before,” said Commissioner Chris Urbina, also executive director of the state Department of Public Health and Environment.

Commissioner Tommy Holton, also mayor of Fort Lupton in Weld County, cast the sole vote against the measure, citing the lack of scientific data over possible health impacts from nearby drilling.

He said existing setback rules work in Weld County — the state leader in drilling — and he fears the new rules will affect schools, fire districts and local governments that benefit economically from oil and gas development.

“We need to base this on fact and not change the rules just because we can,” he said.

Some conservation and citizen groups had called for minimum setbacks of 1,000 feet or more from homes.

Meanwhile, oil and gas, agriculture and homebuilder groups worried that the new rules will make it harder to access energy reserves while also hampering farming and ranching operations and residential development.

“We hope that policy makers will recognize the numerous economic repercussions that these increased setbacks will have on all stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, farmers, ranchers, developers and all Colorado taxpayers,” Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said in a news release.

Oil and gas commissioner Mike King, also executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, said only two states have minimum setbacks greater than 500 feet. Those are Maryland, at 1,000 feet, and West Virginia, at 625 feet.

However, Colorado’s rules, which take effect Aug. 1, require companies to mitigate traffic, noise, air pollution and other impacts for drilling within 1,000 feet of buildings, and meet with anyone within that distance upon request.

“Setbacks are not simply about numbers. Setbacks are about a number of things,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, of which the conservation commission is a part.

Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, said in a prepared statement that the rule is particularly weakened by exemptions applying to rural areas that constitute 95 percent of the state.

“While the state may tout the minimally increased setbacks as a victory for Coloradans, a closer look reveals exemptions that leave the great majority of Coloradans at risk of drilling in their backyard. All Coloradans should be afforded the same protections whether they live in urban or rural parts of our state,” he said.

Oil and gas commissioner Rich Alward of Grand Junction tried without success Monday to convince fellow commissioners to eliminate the difference in treatment between urban and rural residents under the new rules.

Under a key provision, companies seeking to drill fewer than 500 feet from homes will need to seek a waiver from all owners of buildings within that distance in a higher-density area, but not a rural one.

“Why do we need this distinction? I don’t see that it serves any useful safety objective,” Alward said.

King noted that the new rules eliminate currently differing minimum setbacks between rural and high-density areas.

But he and other commissioners also voted 6–3 to keep the waiver requirement in urban areas rather than discarding it altogether.

“When you think about where we’re having issues right now, it’s in urban areas where this activity has not occurred,” he said.

Commissioner DeAnn Craig noted that while companies still could seek variances from the agency in cases where waivers aren’t granted, the requirement opens a pathway for communication with building owners.

Despite the focus on urban impacts, the commission heard during hearings from a number of residents in rural Garfield County who claimed health effects from nearby drilling.

Jim Ramey, director of Citizens for a Healthy Community, a group worried about possible federal oil and gas leasing in Delta County, voiced disappointment in the setback rule, and hope that state lawmakers will work to protect residents from drilling risks.

But King expressed satisfaction in a measure that he anticipates he’ll be called to explain to lawmakers.

He added that when they take up the issue, “they’re going to find out it’s a lot more complicated than they think it is.”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission earlier this year also made Colorado the first state to require testing of nearby groundwater both before and after drilling.


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