Wed December 12, 2012

Energy Hearing Focuses on Setback Distance and Water Quality

Energy regulators in Colorado are examining whether to increase the distance between oil and gas drilling sites and buildings such as schools and homes.

KUNC's Bente Birkeland reports on the setback hearing for Morning Edition.

The new rules would mandate a 350-foot distance between oil and gas wells and buildings across the state. Right now the drilling distance can be as little as 150 feet in rural areas.

Matt Lepore is the director of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the energy industry. He says the rule change also seeks to minimize the impacts of drilling.

“Things like noise and smells and dust. Operators would have to mitigate those impacts.”

The environmental community also asked state regulators to increase the setback distance from homes and schools.

“People are talking about migraine headaches, bleeding ears, respiratory problems, asthma symptoms, fatigue, vomiting, elevated heart rate. These are very serious health impacts and they tend to increase in proximity to the location of the operations,” says Mike Chiropolos who testified on behalf of several groups including Western Resource Advocates.

But several of the commissioners questioned how to independently verify potential side effects, and the oil and gas industry has repeatedly said the practice is safe.

Tricia Schuler is the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. She says the issue is complicated and is much bigger than the setback distance.

“There’s not going to be a simple solution that’s a number. Because the solution for communities is going to involve we do notice, how we engage and what the best practices are that go into place in development.”

Several people, including Debra Anderson, testified that the current system doesn’t need to change. Anderson is a royalty owner in western Colorado. She worries new buffer zones could prevent her mineral rights from being developed.

“It helps older people that have minerals to subsidize their income. Because many of these mineral owners are not rich people. They’re just average ordinary people.”

The oil and gas commission is holding another set of hearings in January and hopes to wrap things up shortly after. Meanwhile state lawmakers are expected to take up the issue when the legislature convenes in January.