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'Setback' Bill Fails, But Lawsuit To Keep Drilling Away From Colorado Schools Continues

Stephanie Paige Ogburn

A group of Greeley residents are suing state officials over drilling regulations known as “setbacks.” State regulations require oil and gas sites to be 1,000 feet away from structures like schools and 500 feet from residences.

The point of contention is a proposed 24 well-pad project by Extraction Oil and Gas, just outside the of the city of Greeley boundary. The project has been approved by Weld County Commissioners and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Extraction Oil and Gas claims the drilling site will be 1,200 feet away from the playground of Bella Romero Academy middle school in Greeley.

But the lawsuit claims it would be just 500 feet away.

"We are just constantly ignored and we don't have the money to fight an industry like oil and gas."

“The drilling site is adjacent to the school grounds, so what they are talking about is a difference in opinion about what constitutes a playground,” said Will Walters, chair of the Colorado Sierra Club, one of five groups involved in the lawsuit.  

“We’re seeing again that citizen input is ignored consistently. I feel very grateful that Weld Air and Water now has the help of larger environmental groups like Sierra Club to litigate this. Because without help, local citizens, we really don’t have a shot,” said Therese Gilbert of Weld Air and Water, a citizen group.

The lawsuit also claims bias in the location of the proposed drill site, a low-income, highly-diverse area. According to data for the 2015-2016 school year, Bella Romero Academy was 82 percent Hispanic or Latino and nearly 92 percent of students were on free or reduced-price lunches.  

“We need now litigation, something to get the attention and to get the interest of public citizens into the conversation because we are just constantly ignored and we don’t have the money to fight an industry like oil and gas,” Gilbert said.

Credit Greeley/Evans School District 6
Greeley/Evans School District 6
Bella Romero Academy, a middle school in Greeley where complainants say a proposed drilling site will be too close to the playground.

Meanwhile, a Colorado Senate committee defeated a proposal to extend the required distance between schools and oil and gas wells. The bill would have extended the setback to the property lines of a school or a child care center instead of the building itself. The bill was defeated 6-5 in the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee with all six Republicans on the panel voting against it. 

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