Fort Collins is updating their oil and gas regulations after the Colorado Supreme Court rejected a voter-approved moratorium on oil and gas drilling in 2016, saying the five-year time-out conflicted with state law. The city is taking up the issue now, not because of looming oil and gas development but because it expects more home development near existing wells. The focus is on setbacks, or how far homes must be from oil and gas wells.
Three changes are up for discussion:
- Removing any official references to the now-defunct moratorium from rules and regulations;
- Increasing the distance between new development and existing, active oil and gas wells;
- And reducing the distance between of new development and plugged and abandoned wells.
“We are in a situation where we don’t have a great potential for new wells, but we do have existing wells and we do have development pressure near those wells. The state doesn’t regulate where new buildings can go in relation to active operations. That’s where we step in,” Rebecca Everette, a senior environmental planner with Fort Collins, said.
One of the proposed changes to the land use code addresses the distance that new homes can be built from existing wells. That’s called a reverse setback and it varies widely depending on where you are. In Fort Collins, you can currently build homes 350 feet from a well. But the city wants to up that number to 500 feet.
“Inherently, 499 feet is not significantly different from 501 feet. It’s just a numerical cut off,” Everette said. “But when you compare 500 feet to say, 350 feet, there is an increase in potential safety for residents and properties that may be within that vicinity.”
The city is also proposing a change to addresses how close homes can be built to old wells that aren’t in operation. Fort Collins wants to reduce the current distance of 350 to 100 feet, but only if the well is properly shut down through a process called plugging and abandoning. The logic is that a shorter distance would incentivize home builders to work with oil and gas companies to get old wells cleaned up.
“That is significant for land developers who would like to develop near abandoned wells because that would create a financial incentive for them to work with an operator to either abandon a well that is active regain some of that land area for their development,” Everette explained.
The regulatory update in Fort Collins is part of a larger trend. Recently, many Front Range communities like Thornton, Erie and Broomfield have been working to update their own oil and gas rules. Population growth is a big factor. The state estimates the fastest growth will be along the North Front range, in Larimer and Weld Counties. Both of those counties, and others, are in the path of drilling expansion.
Another important factor is the Firestone home explosion last April that killed two people. Though the incident is still under investigation, investigators have said that the explosion was linked to a pipeline, called a “flowline,” attached to a nearby well that had been leaking odorless gas into the basement of the home.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has since proposed seven changes to oil and gas regulations at the state level, including enhancing the state’s "Call before you dig" program, creating a fund to deal with old wells, and strengthening certain pipeline regulations. The rulemaking process to update flowline regulations is underway, including a pair of public meetings scheduled for Jan. 8 and 9.