December meeting is last chance to testify on drill-pad setbacks
Western Slope gas patch residents have one more opportunity to make their voices heard by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee on how close to their homes oil and gas drilling pads can be located. On Dec. 10 and Dec. 11, the COGCC will hold its final public hearings on rules for drilling pad setbacks from homes and public facilities and for required monitoring of groundwater near drilling sites.
Presently, the required setback in urban settings is 350 feet. In rural areas, it is 150 feet. The 150-foot setback is just far enough to keep an overturned rig from falling on a dwelling. The 350-foot setback is purely arbitrary, supported by neither science nor logic.
Part of the problem is that the COGCC and the advocates for larger setbacks and more monitoring of groundwater are working at cross purposes. The state wants uniform regulations to avoid a rash of community rules, such as those currently proposed by Longmont and opposed by the Hickenlooper administration.
The groups and individuals asking for greater protections insist the COGCC must fulfill its mandate under Colorado law to protect “public health, safety, and welfare, including protection for the environment.”
There is no law requiring groundwater monitoring during drilling operations, though voluntary monitoring is encouraged.
Conservationists and public health advocates maintain that 350 feet is insufficient to mitigate the toxins emanating from oil and gas drilling operations. They want the COGCC to establish a 1,000-foot setback between homes and drilling operations to provide communities “presumptive protection” from public health problems related to drilling. The recommendations also call for a 1,500-foot setback for public facilities like schools, hospitals, nursing homes and playgrounds.
Supporters of increased setbacks cite scientific studies advocating better protection for residents living near drilling operations. For example, Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project released a report last month that claimed, “The largest health survey to-date of Marcellus Shale residents living near oil and gas development shows a clear pattern of negative health impacts associated with living near gas facilities.”
The argument in favor of greater setbacks was augmented this month by a new report by renowned endocrinologist Dr. Theo Coburn and others, released by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, or TEDX.
Among other air pollution problems, the report documented 30 nonmethane hydrocarbons associated with drilling that can affect the endocrine system at very low concentrations — “far less than government safety standards” the report concludes.
Co-author and TEDX Executive Director Carol Kwiakowski described the study as a reminder that, while water pollution from drilling is a possibility, “air pollution is a certainty.”
The draft of the Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment completed last year found that “gas processes release chemicals that are known to impact health; chemicals emitted into the air ... are more likely to impact health than chemicals released into the water or soil.”
After meeting with stakeholder groups for several months, the COGCC appears to have hardened its position on setbacks.
Conservation Colorado spokesman Charlie Montgomery explained, “The state’s proposed change to minimum distances between fracking and homes is to keep policy virtually unchanged. The current separation in urban and suburban areas is 350 feet. The state’s proposed separation is 350 feet.”
In response, COGCC Director Matt Lepore said, “The rules we’ve proposed also focus on enhanced communication between operators and the communities where they are conducting oil and gas operations, as well as greater mitigation of nuisance impacts, such as noise, lighting, odor and dust arising from operations.”
Unfortunately, such reassurances are unlikely to sway people who have encountered the intransigence of oil and gas companies when they have tried to negotiate better terms. As a Sierra Club letter says, “This is an industry that appears to know no boundaries when it comes to the average citizen looking out of their home windows.”
The December meeting may be the last opportunity to convince the COGCC members that their first responsibility is to the health and welfare of the people of Colorado.
Persons interested in testifying at the December meeting can contact Western Colorado Congress regarding scheduling, carpooling or further information on the meeting.