Groups want greater drilling setbacks

The Sierra Club has been joined by 12 other activist groups in pushing for drilling setbacks even greater than those sought by some organizations earlier this summer.

The groups also are calling for closing what the Sierra Club calls a setback “loophole” involving new work on existing wells.

At issue are distances between oil and gas development activities and homes, schools, hospitals and other occupied facilities. Current rules allow for drilling as close as 150 feet from homes in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas.

“This is an industry that appears to know no boundaries when it comes to the average citizen looking out of their home windows,” Shane Davis, an oil and gas researcher for the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter, wrote in a letter to Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The Sierra Club is calling for a minimum 2,000-foot setback between drilling and homes, schools, parks and similar facilities. It’s also requesting another 100 feet for each additional well at the same site, “due to the concentration of on-site emissions from aggregated wellbores,” the letter states. In western Colorado, many well pads now often contain 10, 20 or more wells.

In July, Western Resource Advocates, the Western Colorado Congress and the San Juan Citizens’ Alliance asked the oil and gas commission to require a minimum setback of 1,000 feet for homes and 1,500 feet for schools and other public facilities.

Western Colorado Congress of Mesa County, a WCC community group, signed on to the Sierra Club letter. The Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale and Citizens for a Healthy Community in Hotchkiss also signed it.

The letter by Davis also says the existing setback rules don’t apply to cases when companies re-enter and redrill existing wells. In an interview, Davis said in some cases homes have been built close to existing wells, which may be decades old and have degraded cement sealing, making them “a catastrophe waiting to happen” if they are re-entered and hydraulically fractured under high pressure.

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said the commission is charged with making sure the oil and gas resource is drained properly, and has rules to ensure that’s done safely.

“If you already drilled it you might as well get the resource out of it,” he said.

Preventing that from happening and establishing big setbacks harms mineral owners’ property rights, and in the latter case also ignores concerns from the Colorado Farm Bureau and Colorado Association of Home Builders about resulting limitations on their land uses, Dempsey said.

A broad-based committee has been studying the state’s setback rules as the commission prepares to consider whether to implement any changes in those rules.

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