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An oil well pumpjack in a farm field in Weld County against the backdrop of the Front Range on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

All homes and schools in Colorado should be protected from new oil and gas drilling by a 2,000-foot buffer or setback – four times the current standard for urban areas, a majority of the members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said.

In a session Wednesday to review proposed rule changes on setbacks, four of the five commissioners voiced support for an extended setback to protect public health and safety, as well as reduce nuisances such as odors, noise and heavy traffic.

The one commissioner expressing reservations about the 2,000-foot setback was Bill Gonzalez, a former oil and gas industry executive. “I don’t think that is the right number and the right way of going about it,” he said.

Jeff Robbins, the commission chairman, said that the expanded setback was in line with the COGCC’s change in mission — defined in Senate Bill 181 — from promoting oil and gas development to the protection of public safety, health, welfare and the environment in regulating the oil and gas industry.

“It is a paradigm shift,” Robbins said. “We are sending a signal that [oil and gas] operators ought to check in with the commission and local governments early on” in their planning to know if a project will be “really difficult or not doable.”

There was, however, also a majority agreement that there could be exemptions and variances allowing projects within 2,000 feet of homes. There was a split among commissioners on how easy it should be to get a variance.

The COGCC setback position was quickly criticized by the industry. “The setback recommendation is completely arbitrary, not based on science, and is being made without any legitimate consideration of its impacts on working families across our state,” Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in an email. 

The five-member, full-time commission took over from a volunteer board July 1, and is in the midst of a sweeping overhaul of the state’s oil and gas regulations so that they conform with Senate Bill 181.

The current setback for an oil and gas well from a home is 200 feet statewide and 500 feet in more heavily settled urban areas.

The COGCC staff had proposed extending the 500-foot setback statewide, adding a 1,500-foot setback for projects affecting 10 or more homes and doubling the setback from school grounds to 2,000 feet.

The commissioners rejected the staff proposals on residential setbacks, saying that every resident deserved the same protection and that children deserve the same protection at home as they get at school.

“The 500 feet is more of the bare minimum. And if we want to be truly protective, we have to go beyond that,” said Priya Nanjappa, an environmental expert who was appointed to the commission.

John Putnam, a Colorado Department Public Health and Environment director who is a nonvoting commission member, said that in making risk assessments federal and state regulators “look at any one person and the risk that person would face.”

John Putnam, director of environmental programs at the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, announces their $9 million settlement with the Suncor Oil Refinery in Commerce City for air quality violations dating back to 2017.

The commission did agree that the setback should be measured from the edge of the well pad to the closest building and active school grounds. Currently the setback distance is measured from the well and the change could add a couple of hundred feet to the buffer, according to COGCC staff.

Over two days of hearings the commission was presented with competing scientific interpretations of the potential health risks posed by proximity to oil and gas operations.

An industry expert witness said that studies did not show any evidence that the 500-foot setback was insufficient, while community and environmental groups cited epidemiological studies showing adverse health effects, safety risks and complaints from residents.

“The science is not perfect. We don’t have all the information we wished we had,” Putnam said, “but we have a task.” He said the issue wasn’t just one point – such as the industry analysis of benzene – but the “cumulative package of impacts.”

One key study by the CDPHE measured chemical emissions for oil and gas sites and then modeled their concentrations offsite. It concluded that in a worst-case scenario — maximum emissions, worst weather — emissions could cause acute, short-term health effects at 2,000 feet.

“I find credence to CDPHE study,” Robbins said, because the kinds of health problems it predicts line up with the complaints filed with the state by residents. 

“What drives it home for me is the testimony of people,” Robbins said. “These folks who have complained about the same things” the CDPHE study predicted.

An oil and gas drilling rig is pictured between houses on June 5, 2020, in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The 2,000-foot setbacks would also help reduce the nuisances neighbors experience from working oil and gas sites, such as noise, dust, odor and light, he said.

“When it comes to the setback distances, I don’t know that I’ve been compelled by the science,” Gonzalez said, “Is 2,000 feet necessary to protect?”

Gonzalez argued that a setback should be a hard, no-go zone and that assessing whether a particular site was acceptable should be done using another new rule – alternative location analysis – requiring an operator to consider other sites.

The impact of the 2,000-foot setbacks could be softened by a variance process enabling an operator to drill within the buffer, commissioners said.

In the last two years about a third of the applications to drill in Colorado were within 2,000 feet of a building, according to COGCC data.

“My view of setbacks is they should be pretty prohibitive,” Gonzalez said. “If you are getting 30% seeking variances, I don’t think rules are meant to be broken to that volume, to that extent.”

Nanjappa agreed “the setback should be hard and the exceptions should be rare.”

But other commissioners spoke in favor of giving both the commission and drillers some flexibility.

“A setback for me is a blunt instrument, but it is the most impactful instrument we have at our disposal and address health, safety ], welfare and environment,” said Karin McGowan, a commissioner and a former CDPHE deputy executive director.

“You regulate to protect, but you also know that people are going to come with creative ideas,” McGowan said. “I think there has to be a waiver process, but I think you have to do no harm.”

COGCC Executive Director Julie Murphy said “distance is one tool of the suite of options but it is not the only tool” in protecting health and safety.

On a case-by-case basis, there could be technologies and controls that when added to a project to reduce its impact, Murphy said. 

The COGCC staff was directed to revise the proposed regulation in light of the commission discussion. Robbins said there will be future discussion of the revised regulation and eventually a formal vote.

UPDATE: This story was updated to insert a comment from an oil and gas trade group that was emailed after publication.

Special to The Colorado Sun
Twitter: @bymarkjaffe