Some local activists are cheering indications that state regulators may impose a 2,000-foot setback between oil and gas development and homes, while the industry and its supporters worry that it could make a lot of land in western Colorado unavailable to drilling.

A majority of the five-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission this week indicated initial support for 2,000-foot setbacks, which are greater than what agency staff had recommended. The commission is looking at setbacks as part of sweeping rulemaking proceedings it is undertaking to implement Senate Bill 181, which was passed last year.

That law prioritizes protection of public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife over fostering oil and gas development. Setback requirements that provide for some level of separation between development and homes are one means of protecting the public, but the question is how big a setback is required to accomplish that.

The commission currently has a 500-foot minimum setback with exceptions allowing for closer drilling in some cases in rural areas. Matt Sura, an attorney who long has advocated for stricter commission rules, said that, generally speaking, drilling doesn’t occur closer than 500 feet from homes.

Oil and gas commission staff recommended a 500-setback requirement, but that there be a 1,500-foot setback from 10 or more homes or any high-occupancy building.

But the commission’s chairman, Jeff Robbins, and most other commissioners voiced support for a 2,000-foot setback from all homes based on health research and comments from residents living near drilling activity. Staff will be returning to the commission with a revised proposal that will undergo a vote.

“We’re very grateful to the commissioners and Jeff Robbins for listening to the advice of impacted folks who have been talking about the need to move facilities farther away from homes,” said Emily Hornback, executive director of the Western Colorado Alliance, which is based in Grand Junction.

She said she’s glad such a setback distance is being discussed and “citizens and residents actually are being listened to for the first time in a long time.”

Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, worries that the setback proposal, when combined with other setbacks she said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is looking at to address riparian areas and wildlife protection, could result in setback rules looking similar to Proposition 112.

That 2018 measure, proposing a 2,500-foot setback applying to homes and other vulnerable areas such as streams, was defeated by Colorado voters by a vote of about 55% to 45%, amid concerns about how much land it could have put off-limits to drilling in places including western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

“I think it’s important that we remember how handily that was defeated by voters in 2018, and that was while we were experiencing good economic conditions,” Miera said.

Drilling has come to a near standstill in the Piceance Basin, as natural gas prices remain low. Only one company is currently operating a rig — Terra Energy Partners, in Garfield County. Companies also are worried about what regulations they will face under Senate Bill 181.

“The good men and women in our industry are eager to get back to work,” said Miera, who worries that the proposed setbacks pose another threat to “these very good jobs.”

Garfield County contends that a 2,000-foot setback would make miles-wide swaths of land off-limits to drilling in the county, and half of the existing thousands of wells in the county couldn’t have been drilled in the county had such a setback existed. Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said land south of Silt, Rifle and Battlement Mesa generally would have been unavailable to drill under such a setback.

He said the requirement would hurt not just the industry but mineral royalty owners, and governments and special districts reliant on oil and tax revenues.

“We’ve already seen Rifle (Colorado River Fire Rescue) shut down one fire station that’s directly related to the reduced revenues from the natural gas industry,” he said.

While the industry and its backers worry about how a 2,000-foot setback would affect future drilling, Hornback worries about how many people already have been subject to drilling that’s closer.

Bonnie Smeltzer of Battlement Mesa is one of those people. Smeltzer, who is nearly 93, said she lives within a quarter-mile of one well pad and probably about the same distance from another.

She said she’s been dealing with the impacts of local oil and gas development for a decade. She’s coped with things such as noise and traffic, and has kept a running logbook of odor problems she’s experienced.

“It’s not fun to live next door to a well pad, I tell you, so 2,000 feet can’t be far enough for me, and I’m sure a lot of people will agree with me,” she said.

She believes the use of directional drilling allows companies to drill farther from homes, schools, parks and neighborhoods.

“They should be made to do it,” she said.

Miera said there was testimony before the commission of horizontal wells being able to be drilled out 3 miles from a pad.

While there may be a case or two of that having happened in Colorado, it’s not happening with what horizontal drilling has occurred in the Piceance Basin, she said. And most drilling in the basin instead has involved wells that are drilled out diagonally, and then vertically into producing sandstone formations not conducive to horizontal drilling.

Those wells can’t reach as far as wells drilled down and then out horizontally to tap oil and gas.

Miera questions whether the health science justifies a 2,000-foot setback and believes this is another example of regulators pursuing one-size-fits-all, statewide policies that ignore differences between the Piceance Basin and elsewhere when it comes to the oil and gas resource and the geography and topography.

Asked about the concerns of people like Smeltzer, Jankovsky said it’s important to consider the families who are hurt and the poverty that results when the industry is shut down.

“You have to look at people being able to work and put food on their table,” he said.

From Hornback’s perspective, the oil and gas commission is now paying attention to people impacted by drilling who previously have been overlooked.

She said the work of activists isn’t done yet, as regulators continue to consider the possibility of granting companies setback waivers in some cases. She worries that activists won’t have achieved much if there are lots of ways for companies to get around the 2,000-foot number.

Miera said there have been collaborative efforts between industry and environmental groups to address other aspects of the rulemaking, something absent when it comes to setbacks.

“For this discussion to not have any consensus-based approach just highlights the political nature of it,” she said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story has been corrected to reflect that Terra Energy Partners continues to drill in Garfield County, contrary to what Garfield County officials recently have said.

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