• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
  • Subject Specialist
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Subject Specialist This Newsmaker has been deemed by this Newsroom as having a specialized knowledge of the subject covered in this article.
An oil and gas drilling rig is pictured between houses on June 5, 2020, in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado is poised to impose the biggest statewide oil and gas drilling setback in the nation – 2,000 feet from homes and schools – after state regulators unanimously backed the measure in an informal vote Thursday.

A final, formal vote will be held Nov. 6.

But while setting the buffer for even a single home, many members of the commission made clear that there would be “offramps” allowing oil and gas operators to site their drill pads closer.

“This is a good place to be,” Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Chairman Jeff Robbins said during a meeting held on Zoom. “2,000 feet is necessary and reasonable” to protect public health and safety

Environmental and community groups had pushed for the 2,000-foot buffer from drilling, while industry advocates said it would severely hamstring companies and might lead to a lawsuit.

Twelve other states have statewide setbacks, but the largest is 1,000 feet, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California is also considering a 2,000-foot setback.

The setback rule is part of a comprehensive revision of regulations to reflect COGCC’s change in mission, from promoting oil and gas development to protecting public health, safety and welfare, and the environment. The change is the result of Senate Bill 181, which was passed in 2019.

MORE: New energy legislation didn’t end Colorado’s “oil and gas wars.” It just relocated them.

The COGCC’s five full-time commissioners stressed that setbacks are just part of the agency’s improved rules to protect communities. Bill Gonzales, who had been an executive with Occidental Petroleum, said setbacks were just part of an overall change in siting requirements.

Commissioner Karin McGowan, formerly the deputy director at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, called the setback “a blunt instrument” that needed off ramps to provide drillers the option of moving operations closer than 2,000 feet in some circumstances.

“There will be special snowflakes,” she said, “and we have to provide an opportunity to show why they are special snowflakes.”

MORE: Oil and gas companies must monitor fracking emissions as Colorado adopts first-in-the-nation rules to reduce air pollution

Robbins agreed that “it is just not that distance is the sole or dominant tool.”

The regulation offers a series of ways to move drilling operations within the 2,000-foot buffer to as close as 500 feet from a home.

These would include when a tenant or owner, with informed consent, agrees to drilling closer; when the location is part of a comprehensive area plan that organizes multiple drill sites; when the wells, tanks and compressors are 2,000 feet from a home, even if the drill pad is closer; or when a commission hearing finds substantial protections at the site.

“If we adopt these siting requirements,” Robbins said, “I am not, as a commissioner, adopting offramps that should not be used … We will be in a place to adjudicate wells that are closer and will be approved.”

Robbins said an application that could not meet the standards would be rejected.

The commission sought to clarify in the final statute what constitutes informed consent and substantial protections.

Commissioner Priya Nanjappa, who was director of operations for Conservation Science Partners, expressed some concern about allowing drilling as close as 500 feet, but voted for the proposal.

The commissioners said their vote was informed by a 2019 CDPHE study that concluded in a worst-case scenario oil and gas operations could create acute, short-term health problems for residents 2,000 feet from a well pad and by the testimony of Coloradans affected by drilling operations.

The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019, ahead of the first committee hearing for Senate Bill 181. The legislation would add significant new regulation to the industry and is being brought by Democrats. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

McGowan said numerous epidemiological studies have indicated that drilling operations may adversely impact health. “The jury is still out on whether the effects are correlation rather than causation,” she said, but that “lived experiences shared with us… show there is a health effect on people.”

Commissioners pushed back on the industry’s claim that Colorado voters had rejected extended setbacks in a 2018 ballot measure. Initiative 112 would have created 2,500-foot setbacks around homes, schools but also natural and riparian areas. It was defeated on a 55% to 45% vote.

Nanjappa said “112 was a broad, sweeping proposition… using a machete for a haircut. We are not talking about that, we are talking about something a lot more surgical.”

Updated at 7:35 a.m. at Sept. 25, 2020: This story has been updated to correct the date when a formal vote on the 2,000-foot setback proposal will be held. It will be held Nov. 6.

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe