Panel favors tougher setback rules for drilling rigs

Colorado oil and gas regulators on Wednesday provisionally approved new, stricter rules governing setbacks between drilling and homes and other structures.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s action is intended to address some of the contentious concerns over issues such as fumes, noise, traffic and possible health impacts from operations near where people live.

Currently, companies can drill within 150 feet of homes in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas. Under the commission’s new rules, which it expects to take final action on the week of Jan. 21, companies seeking to drill closer than 500 feet from homes and other buildings would have to abide by requirements for meeting with affected building owners and mitigating impacts. Also, a local government’s designee could require that permission be obtained from all building owners within 500 feet of a proposed well, unless a company receives a variance from the commission director.

The meeting and impact mitigation requirements also would apply for drilling within 1,000 feet of buildings, and a commission hearing would be required to drill closer than 1,000 feet from schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other public buildings.

The commission’s provisional vote was 7-2, with commissioners John Benton, an oil and gas executive, and Tommy Holton, mayor of Fort Lupton, voting no. It delayed final action so commission staff could bring back a revised document for it to consider based on its discussion Wednesday.

The action on setbacks comes just two days after the commission adopted what state officials say are the nation’s toughest requirements for groundwater testing when wells are drilled. Likewise, the commission is describing the setback rules as the most rigorous nationally.

“These are tough and far-reaching new rules that significantly reduce the effects of drilling for those living or working nearby while at the same time protecting the rights of mineral owners,” commission director Matt Lepore said in a news release.

Lingering issue

However, Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action immediately assailed the new rules in a prepared statement, calling them “pathetically weak” and saying they “will continue to enrich oil and gas companies at the expense of the public’s health and property values.”

Despite months of stakeholder meetings last year and days of commission hearings, wide disagreement remained over what the commission should do on setbacks. Many citizen and conservation groups said minimum setbacks of 1,000 feet or more are needed to protect the public. The oil and gas industry and mineral rights owners worried about the constraints that even the 500-foot rule will place on drilling, while homebuilding and agricultural groups say it also would infringe on their operations and interests, such as by reducing the number of developable lots.

“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,” said Doug Flanders of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, who predicted a drop in oil and gas tax revenues.

One hang-up on the setback issue has been over the concept of needing the consent of building owners within 500 feet of a proposed well. Commission staff had recommended requiring such consent, or a variance from it, in all cases of drilling in urban areas. But the commission supported the idea of leaving the consent requirement up to local government designees, out of respect for the idea that local jurisdictions differ on whether such consent should be necessary.

Equal protection

They also agreed to extend the consent requirement to rural areas, after hearing from parties who questioned why rural residents should receive a different level of protection than urban ones under the rules.

“You should treat all community members of the state equally because the life of Mr. Smith is as important as the lives of my friends who live in Denver,” said Tresi Houpt, a former Garfield County commissioner and oil and gas commissioner.

She was referring to Michael Smith, who lives in a rural area outside Silt and was one of several to testify Wednesday about headaches, nosebleeds and other maladies they say they are suffering due to nearby drilling.

Dr. Chris Urbina, an oil and gas commissioner and director of the state Department of Public Health and Environment, indicated during the hearings this week that he thinks a lot more study is needed to resolve questions of possible health impacts from drilling. And in fact, his department and the Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday announced they will launch just such a study (see story, page 2A).

Meanwhile, however, he was among the majority of commissioners who opposed the idea of a setback smaller than 500 feet.

“Although I don’t think the science is perfect yet, I think it does add another level of protection,” he said of that setback distance.

Jep Seman, an attorney representing the Colorado Petroleum Association, told the commission he thinks people’s health concerns are sincere, but data on the matter is still lacking.

“It’s clear that more study is needed,” he said.

But meanwhile, he said the state should stick to its current setback rules and focus more on better mitigation of impacts and communication with affected parties.


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