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Colorado's Draft Oil And Gas Rules Fail To Satisfy Those Seeking Local Control

Jim Hill
A drill rig in Northern Colorado.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is considering two new rules governing how oil and gas operators work in populated areas. The draft rules stem from two unanimous recommendations made by Gov. John Hickenlooper's oil and gas task force. Both relate to giving local governments more say in where companies drill.

The task force's goal was to forestall a ballot effort to ban oil and gas development in some parts of the state. Yet responses to the recommendations, and now to the COGCC's draft rules, show many believe they are not addressing the concerns that led communities and citizens to call for a ballot measure.

The rules under consideration address two unanimous task force recommendations. One relates to defining a large facility within an urban mitigation area. Such facilities would trigger special rules, such as longer comment periods and consultation, and possibly mediation, with local governments. The other proposed rule mandates better communication between energy operators and the planning departments of local governments.

In the current draft, the definition of a large facility is one with 90,000 feet of drilling proposed or storage tanks that hold more than 4,000 barrels. COGCC director Matt Lepore said that typically amounted to eight wells. The definition of an urban mitigation area, a pre-existing definition not up for discussion in these draft rules, is an area with at least 22 building units or one high-occupancy building unit is located within a 1,000-foot radius circle of a proposed well site, or 11 building units in a 1,000-foot radius semicircle of the site.

If the definition of a large facility within an urban mitigation area criteria is triggered, oil and gas operators have to consult with the local government with land use authority about the site's location. They are also required to notify and consult with local governments with land use authority within 1,000 feet of the proposed site.

For instance, if the proposed wells are sited in Weld County but the site is within 1,000 feet of the town of Windsor's boundaries, the energy company would have to notify Windsor as well.

That's got local governments up in arms, but for different reasons.

Weld County doesn't want a government without land use authority meddling in its oil and gas siting. Boulder County, in contrast, says 1,000 feet isn't enough, because the impacts of oil and gas activity spread far beyond that. Ben Pearlman, an attorney with Boulder County, said the area for consultation needed to be expanded for it to be meaningful.

"I think we need to recognize that major facilities like these have a much wider impact and will affect people living in nearby jurisdictions further than 1,000 feet," said Pearlman.

"The fact that they have the right to just come in here and put these huge facilities 500 feet from people's homes I feel is just deplorable."

Additionally, the definition of what a large facility is, layered on top of the definition of an urban mitigation area, means that very few large sites would actually be addressed by the new rules. Over the last few years, only a dozen or so sites have met the criteria that would trigger this rule. That's because many of the neighborhoods experiencing the impacts oil and gas development aren't that dense.

Yet even in less dense areas, proposals for large sites are drawing significant opposition.

Maria Orms, who lives in the Hunter's Glen neighborhood in Thornton, worries about a proposal from Synergy Resources Corp. to put in 20 wells at Wadley Farms, less than half a mile away. There are two elementary schools near the site as well, she said.

"The fact that they have the right to just come in here and put these huge facilities 500 feet from people's homes I feel is just deplorable," said Orms. (For reference, 500 feet is about one and a half football fields long.)

Neither the commission's proposed rules nor the governor's task force addressed what residents like Orms and many others see as a key issue: that oil and gas drilling operations "just don't belong in neighborhoods."

According to those seeking a better process for local control over where and how drilling happens, the task force also failedon that measure.

At a recent hearing on the proposed COGCC rules, where tensions in the room ran high, Stan Dempsey with the Colorado Petroleum Association said such conflicts were to be expected, as long as there are citizens and governments that continue to take a hard line on drilling.

"Boulder County, Longmont, their citizens have expressed exactly what they want, they don't want new oil and gas operations in their localities, this rulemaking won't solve that problem," Dempsey said.

The first rulemaking hearing on the draft rules will be held Nov. 16-17, 2015 [.pdf] at the COGCC's Denver office.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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