A new requirement for drilling setbacks 2,000 feet from homes is one of a number of major new rules expected to take effect Jan. 1, after unanimous preliminary approval Monday by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The commission isn’t expected to undertake a final vote on the measures until November, to allow for minor revisions to conform with further regulatory rewrites required by Senate Bill 181, passed in 2019.
That measure required numerous changes in how both the oil and gas conservation commission and Air Quality Control Commission regulate oil and gas development.
While the oil and gas group previously approved some new rules based on S.B 181, the measures it approved Monday represent the first aimed at the heart of the new law, which required the commission to change its mission to prioritizing protection of public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife over fostering of oil and gas development.
Some of the new measures the commission preliminarily approved Monday include:
n adopting requirements for analyzing alternative locations for oil and gas facilities and cumulative impacts of development.
n greatly widening the scope of who has legal standing to participate in commission hearings, to include any adversely affected or aggrieved party.
n adding language intended to consider impacts to disproportionately impacted communities.
n providing for increased collaboration between the state and local governments in oil and gas regulation, while reserving final authority for the commission when it comes to protecting the public, environment and wildlife.
Jeff Robbins, commission chair, said in a media conference call Monday that in large part there was a lot of consensus reached among stakeholders on the regulations the commission approved.
The setbacks are a particularly notable exception to that consensus, however.
The agency’s staff had recommended a 500-foot minimum setback from homes, which is generally consistent with what occurs now, with a 1,500-foot setback from 10 or more homes or any high-occupancy building.
But commissioners decided a greater distance was needed to protect the public.
The 2,000-foot buffer is supported by groups such as the Western Colorado Alliance, based in Grand Junction.
Entities such as Garfield County and the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association worry that it will make a lot of oil and gas inaccessible to development.
The Colorado Cattlemen’s Association has raised concerns that it will impact royalty revenues relied upon by farmers and ranchers with mineral rights, and the new requirement could face a challenge in court.
The commission’s new regulations include what it is calling off-ramps, or conditions under which the commission will consider variances allowing facilities closer to homes than 2,000 feet.
Among these are when affected homeowners or tenants provide waivers, and where things such as topography and the operations that will occur provide substantially equivalent protections to a standard setback.
“We … believe that we’ve created sufficient off-ramps so that minerals will continue to be developed within the state of Colorado,” Robbins said.
Chelsie Miera, executive director of West Slope oil and gas association, said those off-ramps don’t offer a clear path for getting a permit.
“If you have off-ramps, why even have the quote/unquote setback?” she added.
She agrees that there was good consensus-building for other rules the commission passed Monday, and feels that process was abandoned when it came to setbacks.
She said the setbacks in effect will be even greater — around 2,200 to 2,400 feet — because they’re now to be measured from a well pad’s edge rather than from the wells.
Miera believes the new setbacks’ impacts are going to be amplified when the commission proceeds in coming weeks with considering setbacks from riparian areas and protection of high-priority wildlife areas.
She worries about the possible impacts to local oil and gas workers and their families from resulting limits on drillings.
“They’re easily overlooked as part of this conversation,” she said.
Leslie Robinson, chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Garfield County, welcomed Monday’s preliminary approvals by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“We’ve worked hard to get improvements in the regulations that protect health and safety, and a lot of Battlement Mesa people suffered from the consequences of no rules and regulations, or very few. I’m just excited to hear that the COGCC favored the comments that we made and the arguments that we made, and supported our vision for new regulations for oil and gas in Colorado,” she said.
The Colorado Supreme Court previously had ruled against the alliance in a case in which it challenged the oil and gas commission’s current limits on who has standing to participate in commission hearings.
Robinson said standing is important because a landowner with mineral rights can negotiate with a company over where to locate a well pad, while a neighbor more impacted by that location has lacked standing to be heard in commission proceedings.