A state agency touted as a national leader in regulating the oil and gas industry on Wednesday began looking to toughen its rules even further, even as some residents and local governments contended its draft proposals don’t go far enough.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission held an all-day hearing in Denver to begin considering requiring groundwater testing before and after drilling, and stricter rules governing setbacks between well pads and homes, schools and other occupied buildings. The new proposals arguably would represent the most sweeping update of rules governing the industry since the commission approved a landmark regulatory overhaul in 2008. They would have even greater implications than the commission’s decision a year ago to adopt what the state called the nation’s most far-reaching requirements for public disclosure of constituents used in hydraulic fracturing. The setback proposal would include required mitigation measures including limits on noise and operating hours, emissions control devices, traffic plans and other measures for operations within certain distances of buildings.
The new rulemaking comes as concern is growing about drilling across the state, particularly near homes in more urban areas, and as more communities are seeking to impose drilling rules of their own. With the backing of Gov. John Hickenlooper, the oil and gas commission recently sued the city of Longmont, contending its rules conflict with areas of state authority. Last week, Longmont voters approved a ban on hydraulic fracturing. While it might be argued that that ban won’t withstand a challenge in court, that’s missing the larger point that such a ban probably could pass in most Front Range communities, said Elise Jones, who just stepped down as the executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition after being elected as a Boulder County commissioner.
“There’s a lot of concern out there and it’s very widespread,” she told the commission Wednesday.
“Citizens are going to continue to take these efforts into their own hands,” said Sam Schabacker, of the activist group Food & Water Watch. That’s particularly the case if the best the commission can do is establish a minimum 350-foot setback rule, he said. Energy companies currently can drill within 150 feet of homes in rural areas, and 350 feet in urban areas.
“There’s a consensus in many communities that (drilling) simply doesn’t belong that close to homes or schools,” said Mike Freeman, an attorney who helped lobby for revised oil and rules in 2008 and noted that setbacks were a big unresolved issue from that rewrite.
Mineral owners’ interests
The commission is considering a recommendation to allow drilling closer than 350 feet to homes only with the consent of surface owners and owners of occupied buildings within that distance. The mitigation measures would apply, and such measures also would apply as far as 1,200 feet away. Numerous Front Range residents expressed concerns to the commission about the prospect of drilling near homes. But Harry Thompson, a leader of Citizens Supporting Property Rights in Routt County, argued in favor of the current setback rules. He said increased setbacks could make it unprofitable for companies to reach oil and gas deposits, resulting in a waste of resources and denying mineral rights owners access to their property.