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Colorado To Consider Doubling Oil Well Setbacks From Schools

Matt Bloom/KUNC
The Bella Romero Academy 4-8 campus in Greeley. The school drew national attention in 2018 after the state approved a drilling project nearby. The Polis administration is now considering rules that would ban future oil and gas development within 2,000 ft. of schools.

This week, the Polis administration is set to consider a new safety rule that would in most cases ban oil and gas drilling within 2,000 feet of Colorado schools and child care centers.

The rule, which is still in draft form, would double the state’s current minimum “setback” distance, which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission adopted in 2018.

It would also require operators to receive written permission from local schools if they wish to drill closer than the proposed nearly half-mile buffer. The setback distance for homes and apartments would be upped under the plan as well, requiring a new 1,500-foot buffer for neighborhoods with more than 10 homes and other “high occupancy” buildings.

Drilling near occupied buildings, especially schools, has been the subject of debate between Front Range environmental groups and the oil industry for years. It’s now on the table again as state regulators finish implementing last year’s landmark oil and gas legislation, Senate Bill 181.

“This is a big, important, weighty issue,” said COGCC director Julie Murphy during a staff presentation ahead of the deliberations. “The (commission) was established over 70 years ago, and these rulemakings propose historic changes that will advance the protection of public health, safety, welfare, wildlife resources and the environment.”

Opponents of larger setbacks argue scientific consensus on safe distances is thin, while supporters say fossil fuel extraction should be built as far away from people as possible to protect public health and safety.

“We don’t have a study that definitively defines what an appropriate setback distance is,” said Dr. Lisa McKenzie, a public health researcher at the University of Colorado Anschutz who specializes in oil and gas issues. “But we do have some studies that suggest where we might start looking.”

For example, a study published last year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found high levels of exposure to some chemicals used in oil and gas development, such as benzene, could increase the risk of short term health impacts such as dizziness, skin and eye irritation as far as 2,000 feet away from a well. The study did not go as far as to recommend a specific setback distance.

In another, researchers recorded noise levels as far as 1,000 feet from a well pad that were above those that could disturb sleep and have been associated with elevated cardiovascular health risks. McKenzie said more work is needed to confirm these findings.

“It’s still fairly early for research science,” McKenzie said. “Research is slower than regulation sometimes.”

Matt Bloom/KUNC
A well pad is visible less than 2,000 ft. behind the school.

Meanwhile, the industry has repeatedly played down the findings of such studies.

“There is no scientific consensus that suggests a blanket, arbitrary setback is appropriate or justified,” said Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute’s Colorado chapter, an industry group that has lobbied against big setback increases in the past. “We look forward to working with the COGCC, stakeholders and communities in the coming weeks to bring forth solutions that enhance public health while allowing for safe, responsible energy production.”

The increased statewide setbacks could affect communities across Northern Colorado, partly by moving future drilling operations farther away from the region’s growing population but also by limiting the land available for energy development. The state is home to tens of thousands of active wells, most of which are in Weld County.

It’s unclear exactly how big the economic impact would be from the change, but past industry-commissioned projections have shown that larger setback distances could lead to a drop in drilling activity and job loss in the state. (The local oil industry has already shed thousands of jobs this year due to a global oil price slump).

“Colorado voters, weighing this evidence and impact on Colorado jobs, voted against increasing setbacks just two years ago,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Association wrote in a statement last week. “Using studies to support any argument for setback increases is incredibly flawed and based more on political agendas than science.”

Ahead of this week’s deliberations, SB 181’s Democratic sponsors wrote a letter to the COGCC questioning whether the new setback rules go far enough. In it, they point out that if a new well pad is proposed near a residential community with 10 or fewer homes, the rule still allows an operator to drill within 500 feet of it.

“This proposal reflects thinking that SB 181 was designed to change,” the lawmakers wrote. “It reflects a bias towards approving the oil and gas operation.”

Activists and parents of children at schools near existing well sites have also raised concern about potential loopholes written into the COGCC’s new setback rule.

Patricia Nelson, whose son attends Bella Romero Academy 4-8 in Greeley, said she’s especially concerned about one section that allows operators to bypass school governing bodies should they oppose a well pad within 2,000 feet of their building. In those cases, the rule allows them to get permission to drill from the COGCC instead.

Bella Romero has attracted national attention in recent years due to the school’s close proximity to a new well pad. Nelson and other parents tried and failed for years to stop the development.

“The rulemaking has been extremely frustrating for me,” Nelson said. “This isn’t a black and white rule. Half of the time the rules don’t matter because there are always going to be exemptions.”

The new setback rule deliberations come in the middle of a marathon set of rulemaking sessions the COGCC is holding from now through mid-September.

Other topics under discussion include how much power local governments have over oil and gas well planning and the cumulative impacts of energy development on Colorado communities. A final vote on the setback increase as well as other changes to energy regulation will come in October.

Prior to this week’s deliberations, COGCC chairman Jeff Robbins said all parties' concerns would be heard as the commission works to determine a new setback distance.

“This will ensure that development is done in a manner that is protective,” Robbins said. “Colorado will continue to be a lead regulator as the world’s energy needs continue to evolve.”

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
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