Drilling setback bill for schools barely clears House panel

A bill to increase minimum setbacks between schools and oil and gas sites cleared a Colorado House of Representatives committee Thursday night by a 6-5 vote.

The measure next goes to a vote of the full House. While it’s expected to be passed by the House, it will face tough odds of passage in the Republican-controlled Senate. Thursday’s vote by the House Health, Insurance & Environment Committee was party line, with Democrats supporting it and Republicans opposed.

House Bill 1256, sponsored by state Rep. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat, would change the minimum 1,000-foot setback between schools and oil and gas operations so it is measured from a school’s property line rather than the school building.

Dozens of bill advocates, including educators, parents and even some children, testified over several hours during Thursday’s committee hearing. Supporters say the change is needed to protect students using playgrounds, ballfields and other outdoor campus facilities from air pollution, potential fires and explosions, and other dangers.

Foote told the committee, “It just doesn’t make any sense to put something that can explode a couple hundred feet from a playground. It just doesn’t.”

Opponents counter that the existing setback, established in 2013, is adequate to protect students.

Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association industry group, which opposes the bill, pointed to a recent Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report finding a low risk of harmful health impacts to nearby residents from oil and gas development. He also cited the industry’s success in cutting air pollutants.

“We are working every day to reduce our footprint and clean our air,” he said.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, didn’t take a position on the bill.

Lisa McKenzie, an assistant research professor at the Colorado School of Public Health who has studied health risks in Colorado related to drilling, said children are especially susceptible to environmental exposures and there hasn’t been a study to determine the safe distance between wells and schools.

John Adgate, a professor at the school, said there needs to be a focus on measuring peak exposures from air pollutants, not just average emissions over time.

Activists with the Western Colorado Congress and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance say the school setback issue is not just a Front Range one, citing the fact that Ursa Resources has identified a potential well pad site that could be as close as 600 feet from Grand Valley High School in Parachute.

That pad would require a state variance even under the current setback rules, but Ursa is seeking alternative pad sites.

Don Simpson, an Ursa vice president, pointed to other wells the company drilled in the area, near Grand Valley Middle School.

“We have had no complaints of ill effects from the school, the faculty or its students,” he told the committee.

Emily Hornback with Western Colorado Congress pointed to a recent small fire a pipeline contractor experienced at a new Ursa pad site, involving a grout described as highly toxic when it burns.

“Thank goodness it didn’t happen on a pad 600 feet from a school when kids are outside,” she said.


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