New drilling setbacks are sound compromise
The 500-foot basic setback approved Monday for drilling rigs operating near homes — along with 1,000 feet for drilling near other occupied buildings — appears to be a reasonable plan for accommodating both drilling interests and the concerns of groups and individuals.
The fact that the compromise adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drew objections from both the energy industry and environmental groups is an indication of the difficulty in finding a balance on this issue.
One important point to note is that the 500-foot setback isn’t an absolute number. In fact, smaller setbacks — to as little as 200 feet — can be allowed in both rural and urban settings if a variety of conditions is met.
Those conditions include a requirement that the drilling company demonstrate it is doing everything technically feasible to alleviate potential problems for water and air quality, public health and wildlife.
One important issue was raised by Rich Alward, an Oil and Gas Commission member from Grand Junction. He noted that drillers operating in urban areas or areas of high population density must obtain a waiver from homeowners in order to be approved for a setback of fewer than 500 feet, but that same condition isn’t a requirement for drillers seeking smaller setbacks in rural areas.
“Why do we need this distinction?” Alward asked Monday as he sought to amend the proposed new rules to eliminate the difference between urban and rural setbacks when a change is sought regarding the 500-foot limit.
We agree. It seems sensible to have the same basic rules for all parts of the state, with the ability to change them to address circumstances unique to each location. And homeowners should have the same rights throughout the state.
As Alward noted, one of the reasons to change from the previous setback rules was to eliminate setback differences between rural and high-density areas.
But that issue aside, the new setback rules go a long way toward improving drilling procedures in Colorado while still allowing access to important mineral resources, even though that may require greater use of directional drilling to meet setback rules.
The new setback rules are in addition to rules adopted earlier this year by the Oil and Gas Commission that require testing of groundwater near drilling sites both before and after drilling occurs.
As we said recently, those rules can be an important protection for the energy industry as well as for water users, because they will show what potentially dangerous substances are in groundwater before drilling occurs. As a result, water users won’t be able to argue those substances were added to groundwater by the drilling process.
Taken together, the new setback and groundwater testing rules demonstrate Colorado remains at the forefront of reasonable oil and gas regulation and citizen protection.