Environmental and civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Tuesday, alleging that the regulatory agency violated its responsibility to protect public health and the environment when it approved a 24-well fracking site near Bella Romero Middle School in Greeley.
The plaintiffs, which include the Sierra Club, Weld Air and Water, the NAACP Colorado State Conference and Wall of Women, also say that the COGCC failed to adequately assess whether the site in question was as far as possible from the school and from nearby homes.
Denver-based driller Extraction Oil and Gas is preparing to drill 24 new oil and gas wells in Greeley, located about 1,350 feet from the walls of Bella Romero. The project complies with state law requiring that drilling operations be at least 1,000 feet from schools. But critics say the COGCC did not sufficiently evaluate alternative locations for the development.
“The State of Colorado is failing to protect our children,” said resident and environmentalist Therese Gilbert. “We are subjecting children to conditions that are dangerous at their point in physical development, and then expecting them to actively play in those conditions.”
In an emailed statement, an Extraction spokesman wrote that the company “engaged in both an inclusive and very comprehensive process to obtain permits” for the site, and “that process was completed in compliance with all COGCC regulatory guidelines.” The location, he added, “was part of a series of alternative locations that were identified by Extraction to replace several older-vintage permitted locations, including the Gilbert, Sheep Draw and South Greeley sites.”
State Rep. Mike Foote of Denver proposed a bill that would have required oil and gas setbacks to be 1,000 feet from school property boundaries, not just school buildings. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy postponed that bill indefinitely Wednesday afternoon.
Some critics are concerned that Extraction’s proposed project represents a threat to environmental justice, as it will significantly impact a low-income community of color. Bella Romero’s student body is 82 percent Hispanic or Latino.
“Communities of color are already disproportionately burdened by pollution and this is another example,” said Rosemary Lytle, State President of the NAACP Colorado State Conference. “No group of people should bear more than their share of impacts from industrial activities, yet it seems the COGCC does not even consider this.”
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the COGCC, says the agency is currently reviewing the lawsuit and does not yet have a comment.
The county calls them the “most restrictive” of such regulations in Colorado. They are about 60 pages and require a much higher environmental and public health standard than the state. Boulder County began the new rule process following two state Supreme Court decisions in 2016 that invalidated hydraulic fracking bans or long term moratoriums.
“In light of those decisions, the board terminated our moratorium that was in effect until 2018, and established a new moratorium until May 1, 2017, for the purpose of allowing us [Boulder County planning department] to update the regulations that we had adopted in 2012 and prepare for their implementation,” said Kim Sanchez, chief planner for the county.
Now that the commissioners have adopted these regulations, here are three key takeaways:
These regulations are ‘the most restrictive’ in Colorado
Boulder County wants to push the envelope. For example, an oil or gas company that wants to drill in unincorporated Boulder County would have to give notice to surrounding landowners and residents, have multiple public meetings, and do soil and water testing, which could be a very long and probably more expensive process than anywhere else in Colorado. State officials told Boulder County it is overstepping their local authority, a position that Commissioner Elise Jones said they would defend.
“Our focus is on adopting regulations that we think are the strongest possible, for our citizens and the environment, and our understanding of the law as we see it,” she said. “If the state disagrees well, so be it, we’ll deal with that. If the state wants to pre-empt local governments, on oil and gas then they need to do their job and protect us from the impacts of oil and gas, and they are not doing that. And until they do that, local jurisdictions like Boulder County will continue to push to do that work themselves.”
What can the state regulate and what can local governments like Boulder County regulate?
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulates location and construction of drill sites and associated equipment, for example what machinery is used. Local governments like Boulder County have substantial regulatory authority through their land use code, such as building permits for structures, traffic impact fees, and inspecting for compliance with local codes and standards related to water quality and wildlife impacts. Boulder County’s new regulations are the most stringent in terms of land use.
You could get paid to live by oil and gas drilling
One of Boulder County’s regulations could require a company to pay residents “disruption payments.” Not every company would have to do this; it’s an option for the county to require. Within a mile radius of the drill site, companies would need to pay residents enough money to move and pay rent somewhere else during some operations. The closer you are to the drill site, the more money you would get. The amount would be calculated based on federal data for the area. Every month residents would get a check. It would be up to them if they would want to move temporarily or just keep the money.
Commissioner Jones said they thought disruption payments were necessary to include.
“Industry has never been required to say ‘Yes, I’m impacting those people’s lives and I’m going to pay to help move them to a place so their quality of life isn’t diminished by my noise and my dust and my vibrations and my emissions,’ Jones said. “We think that it’s an important first step in industry taking ownership of the significant impacts that drilling has, particularly when you’re drilling near homes and schools and the like.”
Fracking near the White River in Utah, located immediately downstream of the Bureau of Land Management’s White River Field Office that is subject to today’s notice. Photo by Taylor McKinnon / EcoFlight.
Mount Sopris and Hay Park via the @EcoFlight1 Wildlands set.
I recently found myself 1,500 feet above ground, traveling at 180 mph. When I wiped away the breath-mist from the window, I could see the American West in the chill of November: snowy mountain ranges, high alpine, high desert, waves of blue mountains, the shocking red rocks of Utah, the undulations of landscape as it bore out its transformation from range to basin and back again. If I peered closer, the details revealed themselves: the way snow had blown itself into watersheds, the paths I’d hiked winding up mountains, the glint on the curves of some of the nation’s best cutthroat trout streams.
I also saw the unbeautiful: spiderwebs of fracking roads, missing mountainsides, uranium mines, orange ponds for storing tailings and dust, stands of felled trees, the white puffs and yellow haze from coal-fired power plants.
My ticket to this view was a program called “Flight Across America,” which gives college-age and early professional folks the chance to see the West from the air. It’s a program of EcoFlight, a nonprofit dedicated to advocating for environmental issues from the air. Ecoflight was started by Bruce Gordon (good friend to the late John Denver, another pilot-conservationist) 13 years ago; since then, EcoFlight has flown politicians, conservation groups, media, scientists, and celebrities.
In three small Cessnas, we took off from little airports in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico: Grand Junction, Farmington, Cortez, Durango, Moab, Walden. We crammed into these 1970s-era planes with recording gear and notebooks and cameras, with hats and gloves, with headsets for communicating both within the plane and to the other planes, and with curiosity.
Below, we saw Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming; saw the Navajo nation, site of the most polluting coal-fired power plant in the United States; saw the West’s many rivers and diversions; saw the Roan Plateau of western Colorado, a major drilling site. We flew over the proposed Hermosa Wilderness Area in southern Colorado; we camped in freezing temperatures at the Hovenweep National Monument near the ruins of the ancestral Pueblo; we hiked in the heat of Moab and in a blizzard at the Maroon Bells. We also met with an array of experts representing Colorado’s politicians, ranchers, mountain bikers, conservationists, and photographers.
The amount of information we absorbed from our pilots and guest speakers was immense. But perhaps the most important discovery—for those of us who hadn’t flown like this before—was the simple but essential confirmation that the landscape is a whole. Despite the state lines, designations, management agencies, political jurisdictions, and roads, the planet Earth is the planet Earth, a continuous entity. As the snowy peaks morphed into plateaus and into high desert, it was clear that the natural world does not segment or cut herself up at all…
Every day, we witnessed yet more instances of ecological and political interconnectedness; each night, the students would gather around and discuss the questions these examples raised: How can we see the West as a whole, and act accordingly? And how does one action influence others? Indeed, was this very trip culpable in some way? Was using up fuel to see these areas worth it? When I posed that question to Bruce Gordon, the program founder, he said, “That’s always a tough question, but we do our best to offset our carbon footprint as much as possible through various carbon savings in other areas. We work diligently to minimize flight times. We ensure that on each and every mission the value added of empowering our passenger participants and the subsequent outreach is worth the cost in adding to a carbon footprint. We aren’t against oil and gas, but we feel it can and should be done properly, and there are some places it just shouldn’t be done.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Cleanup is continuing and Chevron and authorities are looking into the cause of a pipeline leak outside the Rangely area in which more than 4,800 gallons of oil spilled into a dry drainage.
The leak was discovered March 5 by Chevron personnel in a drainage leading to Stinking Water Creek, and the line was shut off following the discovery.
Two ducks, two other birds and three mice died as a result of the spill.
The incident occurred on Bureau of Land Management land. BLM spokesman David Boyd said the spill initially was estimated at 1,200 barrels, or more than 50,000 gallons. But Erika Conner, spokeperson for Chevron Pipe Line Co., says early reports included recovered barrels of oil combined with snowmelt.
Boyd said the spill involved a 6-inch-diameter oil gathering pipeline.
Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said the oil traveled about 30 feet to an unnamed drainage, then flowed to another drainage, covering about two miles altogether in heavily vegetated terrain.
It stopped at a stormwater siphon about 1.5 miles west of Stinking Water Creek, he said.
He said the failed section of pipe has been sent off for analysis.
Richard Mylott, a spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, said that Chevron “had previously installed berms and siphon dams in the unnamed draw as a prevention/preparedness measure for any spills.”
“… Cleanup is ongoing. Crews have vacuumed oil from behind the siphon dam and are currently removing contaminated soils, flushing oil from pockets and steep ditches,” he said.
Both Mylott and Conner said no water was impacted by the spill.
Conner also said there were no public health concerns.</blockquote
The new Zinke team, including appointments to Bureau of Reclamation, will need to learn quickly about the complexities of Colorado River water law and the drought-induced woes facing Lake Mead
By a comfortable 68-31 margin, the U.S. Senate today confirmed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke.
The former Montana member of Congress will head a department that manages around 500 million acres of land and waterways in the United States.
Zinke’s department also includes the federal Bureau of Reclamation, the agency responsible for the system of dams and reservoirs on the Colorado River, the waterway that is integral to the livelihood of 40 million U.S. citizens living in the Southwest.
In a statement declaring his approval of the appointment, Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake said he looked forward to working with Zinke’s department, notably on behalf of Arizona’s Colorado River allotment.
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
The company believes it can do without a pad that would be located adjacent to Battlement Mesa’s golf course.
Cutting the pad would reduce to four the total number of pads Ursa would drill from within the community of several thousand people. Antero Resources earlier had proposed drilling from 10 pads within the community. Ursa, which subsequently bought Antero’s local assets, has worked to cut the number of pads needed, in part through directional drilling from pads outside the residential development’s borders.
Ursa has Garfield County and state approvals to drill from two pads so far in Battlement Mesa and plans to begin drilling this year. It also has begun the process of seeking approvals for additional pads.
Don Simpson, vice president of business development for Ursa, said Ursa will eliminate the pad by the golf course from its plans if it can get approvals for two additional pads it is proposing, and for a wastewater injection well for one of them.
This week, it dropped efforts to obtain approvals for the injection well close to the community’s water intake on the Colorado River. The proximity and the potential for impacts from spills drew objections from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and county planning staff.
Simpson said the pad now proposed is downstream from the water intake and 2,000 feet from the river. He said changing the location probably will mean extra truck traffic for a while because Ursa doesn’t have approval yet and may not be able to begin injecting wastewater until next year. Trucks would have to haul wastewater out of Battlement Mesa in the meantime. Reducing truck traffic is a key reason Ursa wants to have an injection well.
If the injection well is approved, that would be one less reason for Ursa to need the pad near the golf course.
Simpson said the two additional pads Ursa is pursuing are now planned to be larger, which will allow for more wellheads.
“We think this is a big win for everybody except for the people that don’t want you in (Battlement Mesa) regardless of what you do,” he said.
Dave Devanney of the group Battlement Concerned Citizens, said he’s a bit conflicted on how to react to the latest Ursa developments.
“As somebody said recently, name your poison. Do you want truck traffic or do you want injection wells? The citizens of Battlement Mesa don’t want either,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ursa Resources held a meeting with Battlement Mesa residents yesterday. Here’s a report from Alex Zorn writing for The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. Here’s an excerpt:
The meeting, one of Ursa’s regular sessions with residents, came a day after a zoning change proposed on Ursa’s behalf was withdrawn.
Thursday’s meeting lasted nearly two hours, and Ursa representatives spent nearly the entire time fielding questions from concerned residents.
A conversation that began as an outline for development ended with residents demanding to know if Ursa will leave the community in better shape than they found it.
“Do you see any benefit for the Battlement Mesa citizens from oil and gas?” asked one audience member.
Ursa owns mineral rights under the 5,000-person community and last year won Garfield County and state approval to drill for natural gas inside the Planned Unit Development. Wednesday, a request to place an injection well to dispose of wastewater within the PUD was pulled back after county staff urged rejection.
The state Department of Public Health and Environment earlier urged rejection because the well would be within about 600 feet of the municipal water intake.
The Planning Commission granted a continuance so that Battlement Mesa Partners, which requested the zoning change for Ursa’s natural gas operations, can alter its plan. The hearing was moved to the March 8 Planning Commission meeting.
“The reason for last night’s continuance is to allow us to present all of the changes we’ve made, which will allow us to move the injection well from the BMC B Pad to the BMC A Pad,” Ursa Resources Operations Superintendent Matt Honeycutt said. “We wanted to get it right, and part of that was by talking with many of you.”
Moving the injection well from the B Pad to A Pad will eliminate the threat of any runoff leaking into the Colorado River and contaminating the water supply, he said.
Instead of placing the injection well upriver from the intake, which it would be in the B Pad, Ursa will seek to place the injection well downriver at the BMC A Pad.
Furthermore, he said, shifting focus to the A Pad will eliminate the impact to the area surrounding the B Pad, which will reduce the area of the project by nearly 50 percent. Rather than rezoning 37 acres along the north end of the community by the north end of the Colorado River, the new plan will include closer to 22 acres.
The plan will still be to drill 24 wells in the BMC B Pad, but having an injection well in the community will greatly reduce truck traffic, according to Honeycutt.
Construction will begin for the B Pad on Feb. 21, the company said, with as many as 14 wells to be located there.
Now, 100 wells are in operation out of approximately 200 wells that Ursa plans to drill in Battlement Mesa, though the company has not yet begun to drill within the PUD, representatives said.
Drilling for a pipeline has begun, with 15 of 24 wells already in operation. Drilling is expected to be completed by March 23. Once the drilling is completed there, Ursa will begin drilling at the D Pad.
One resident was frustrated, asking, “Of all of this land, how come you have to do this right here?”
FromThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):
Ursa Resources and the developer of Battlement Mesa have dropped a zoning change proposal necessary for Ursa to pursue…operating a wastewater injection well near the community’s water intake on the Colorado River.
Battlement Mesa Co. is cutting by about half the size of a proposed zone district that would allow injection wells as a special use. The move eliminates the northern portion of what had been a 37-acre proposed district. That northern portion included a well-pad location where Ursa has approvals to drill for natural gas and had hoped to operate the injection well.
The revised zone district proposal still would encompass another location to the southwest where Ursa has begun the process of seeking approvals for an oil and gas pad that also could hold an injection well if local and state approvals are obtained.
The Garfield County Planning Commission was to have considered the original zone district proposal Wednesday night, but instead agreed to consider the revised application March 8.
Ursa had encountered considerable opposition to its original planned location for the injection well, which would have been about 600 feet from the water intake.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had objected to that location because of concerns that leaks from the well and associated storage tanks could threaten the water supply. That agency’s opposition was a primary factor in Garfield County planning staff also recommending that the Planning Commission and county commissioners reject the zoning change.
On Tuesday, Kent Kuster, an environmental specialist for CDPHE, wrote to the county that in a recent meeting with Ursa representatives his agency was made aware of an alternative injection well location to the west of Ursa’s originally envisioned site. Kuster wrote that the potential location would “reduce the associated risk to the public water supply,” is more protective of that supply and may warrant further local discussion.
Battlement Mesa is an unincorporated community of several thousand people. Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens said the group’s members don’t want an injection well anywhere within Battlement Mesa. But the group had been particularly alarmed by the idea of an injection well in the vicinity of the water intake.
In a news release Wednesday, Devanney called the change in Ursa’s plans a victory for residents.
“It was clear that public opinion was against the idea of creating an injection well zone in our community, especially one so close to our drinking water supply,” Devanney said. “Although we may see this proposal resurface in another form, tonight residents of Battlement Mesa can take comfort knowing their water is safe — for now.”
Matt Honeycutt, Ursa’s operations superintendent, declined to say much Wednesday night about the revision in the injection well plans.
“Ultimately it’s to make a better project,” he said.
Don Simpson, Ursa’s vice president of business development, said earlier Wednesday, “We think we’ve come up with a better plan. We’re always looking at different locations, better locations.”
Eric Schmela, president of Battlement Mesa Co., which as the landowner is the applicant for the zoning change, said a number of considerations played into its decision to revise its proposal, from public input, to its own research and additional due diligence.
One member of the Planning Commission, Greg McKennis, sought unsuccessfully Wednesday night to postpone further consideration of the zoning application for 60 to 90 days to give Battlement Mesa residents a chance to fully learn what’s now being proposed and be able to better comment on it.
“This is a big change and we have no idea what those impacts will be,” he said. “… It’s vital that that community … has more than a couple weeks to do what they need to do to review this,” he said.
However, the applicants had a right to request another hearing sooner unless they waived it, which they weren’t willing to do.
“This timing becomes critical down the road to remove trucks off the road for our development plan,” Honeycutt told the commission.
Ursa says having an injection well will eliminate the need to truck away wastewater from drilling. It currently has approvals to drill more than 50 wells from two pads in Battlement Mesa and now is seeking approvals for three more well pads there.
Battlement Mesa Partners, requesting the zoning change for Ursa Resources’ natural gas operations, asked commissioners before a packed hearing room for time to amend the proposal…
The hearing was moved to the March 8 Planning Commission meeting. The Planning Commission staff last week recommended rejecting the proposal in large part because it is close to the community’s water intake.
“I think it would be in the board’s best interest to allow for a continuance so that we can make changes to our application,” said Eric Schmela, president of Battlement Mesa Co. “A continuance would allow us to bring you more complete information on the request.”
Among the biggest changes would be to change the size of the area requested for rezoning to allow wells to dispose of wastewater from the fracking process. Drilling within the Planned Unit Development already has been approved by Garfield County and the state.
According to Schmela, the revised application will reduce the area of the project by nearly half. The previous proposal sought to rezone 37 acres along the north end of the community by the Colorado River. An updated application will reduce that area by 50 percent, stated Schmela.
Not only will the new application reduce the size of the injection zone, but it will also move the well away from the Colorado River and water treatment intake.