Oil and gas school-setback bill dies in Senate

House kills proposal to increase penalties for tampering with rigs

DENVER — It’s a modest proposal, proponents said of a bill Wednesday to change the setback rules for oil and gas wells from 1,000 feet of a school building to the same distance from school grounds.

It’s an unnecessary change, opponents told the GOP-dominated Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy Committee, which killed HB1256 on a 6-5 party-line vote.

The measure, first introduced into the House by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, who has tried several variations to widening the setback rules, would have ordered the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to change its regulations to include such things as ball fields and playgrounds.

“All we’re doing is moving this from the school building wall to the boundary, just like we do with marijuana,” Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, the Senate sponsor of the bill told the committee, referring to state laws that bar retail pot shops from being close to schools. “Children’s safety should be our priority.”

Opponents, however, said there is no evidence the wells are posing a problem.

“We believe that the current setback established just four years ago by the COGCC with extensive stakeholder involvement is working very well, and avoids some of the pitfalls that this bill would create,” said Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council. “We strongly encourage the committee to entrust the COGCC and the Colorado Department of Health and Environment with the responsibility for balancing protection of human health and the environment with development of our state’s oil and gas resources.”

Jones, who carried the bill in the Senate with Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, said the commission’s current rule has so many exemptions as to make it virtually worthless, saying any well can be placed within the setback now with permission from the commission, such as one that’s being considered in Battlement Mesa that’s as close as 600 feet from Grand Valley High School in Parachute.

Emily Hornback, a community organizer for the Western Colorado Congress, who testified on the bill on behalf of that Grand Junction-based group and the Parachute-based Grand Valley Citizens’ Alliance, said the vote was a slap in the face of school children.

“As oil and gas technology has improved, it’s getting closer to people all across the state, including in western Colorado,” she told the committee. “As such, we need to have rules and regulations that keep up with industrial growth into more residential areas. Without it, we will see more proposals like this.”

Not long after the committee killed the bill — GOP Sens. Ray Scott of Grand Junction, Don Coram of Montrose and Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs voted against it, while Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail voted for it — the House State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee killed a related oil and gas bill that Republicans had introduced.

That measure, SB35, would have increased the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony the crime of tampering with equipment on an oil and gas drilling operation. The committee, which is dominated by Democrats, killed it on a 6-3 party-line vote.


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