The buffer between homes and oil and gas drilling in Colorado is by rule 2,000 feet, except when it isn’t, and a move to drill in the middle of a residential area in Firestone is raising questions about how secure that buffer will be.
The state’s biggest operator, Occidental Petroleum, through its Colorado subsidiary Kerr-McGee, is seeking to drill 26 wells within 2,000 feet of 87 homes, with the closest residence 763 feet away.
The site, part of Kerr-McGee’s Longs Peak drilling plan, is also adjacent to a wetland, the Saddleback golf course and the Firestone Trail.
The 2,000-foot setback was the product of the 2019 law, Senate Bill 181, that reoriented state oversight from promoting oil and gas development to protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment.
“This is the kind of neighborhood drilling that brought about Senate Bill 181 and that it was designed to prevent,” said Mike Foote, an environmental lawyer and former state legislator who sponsored Senate Bill 181.
“Operators may be waiting to see what happens to Longs Peak,” Foote said. “If Longs Peak is approved then anything can be approved.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is slated to rule on the driller’s request for a waiver of the 2,000-foot setback rule on Wednesday and commission officials made clear when they adopted the setback that a waiver or “offramp” would be possible.
“There will be special snowflakes,” Commissioner Karin McGowan said then, “and we have to provide an opportunity to show why they are special snowflakes.”
“I am not, as a commissioner, adopting offramps that should not be used,” Commission Chairman Jeff Robbins said. “We will be in a place to adjudicate wells that are closer and will be approved.”
The commission has already approved two waivers to drill within the 2,000-foot setbacks, although those involved only a few homes and one had the approval of a resident.
In a November presentation, Robbins said that an application that complies with the commission requirements would be in line for a permit. “If you tick all the boxes, if you meet our robust regulatory regime, you’re deserving of a permit approval,” he said.
Critics say the “check-the-box” approach while bureaucratically tidy may miss the spirit of Senate Bill 181, Foote said. “Just because an operator checks all the boxes doesn’t mean that is sufficiently protective.”
Essential oils added to cut drilling fluid odors
Kerr-McGee is seeking approval for two drilling pads in Firestone inside the buffer zone as part of its Longs Peak Oil and Gas Development Plan. At its Columbine site the company wants to drill seven wells on a pad within 2,000 feet of seven homes, with the two nearest homes about 1,100 feet away.
The McGavin site, with 26 wells and 87 residences, is the main point of contention. Kerr-McGee’s timeline shows about 18 months to drill, frack and get the wells into production.
The Firestone Planning and Zoning Commission called for rejecting the McGavin site, although the town’s Board of Trustees subsequently approved it. State health officials recommend denying the application unless a set of conditions – most of which Kerr-McGee rejected – is attached to the project.
Even in her recommendation to the commission, COGCC director Julie Murphy stopped short of calling for approval, saying that while she determined the application complies with the commission’s rules, she left the decision “to the discretion of the commission.”
In two prior applications for drilling inside the 2,000-foot setback — both in Weld County, one near Severance and another near Platteville — Murphy recommended approval to the commission.
The waiver process allows drilling inside the no-drill zone if steps are taken to provide “substantially equivalent protections for public health, safety, welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources.”
A driller can also operate in the buffer zone if the residents, provided informed consent, agree to the project.
Kerr-McGee has added best management practices to its plan and tried to address some of the complaints from homeowners. But Bill McGehee, who lives on the cusp of the buffer in the Falcon Point subdivision, said “in the end, no amount of mitigation will make a difference. It just doesn’t belong there.”
The company plans to erect 32-foot-tall walls around the pad to dampen noise and light. The plans show the need for thousands of truck trips, though in response to community concerns Kerr-McGee is taking additional steps to manage traffic.
Kerr-McGee also said it would add an odor neutralizer with essential oils to its closed-loop drilling fluid system to continuously counteract smells.
The working site will cover 25 acres and temporarily hold 44 500-barrel tanks, six purge flares and 13 enclosed combustion devices.
Air quality and sound levels will be continuously monitored. “Our approved overall air monitoring program has been implemented at multiple locations throughout Colorado and demonstrates the ability to operate while being protective of public health, safety, welfare, the environment,” the company said in an email.
The site will employ a “tankless” design, meaning that there will be no oil collection tanks, a potential source of air emissions. The oil will be piped offsite.
The final production site will cover 7 acres, the rest having been reclaimed, and include 10 devices to separate oil from the water that also comes out of the well, 10 tanks to handle water and condensates, two combustors to burn volatile organic fumes, four air compressors, and two units that sample and measure oil and gas coming out of the well.
“Kerr-McGee’s definition of tankless doesn’t mean no tanks,” said Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, deputy director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a nonprofit community group.
In a letter to the oil and gas commission, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment outlined 13 actions which it said should be conditions of approval, adding “if Kerr-McGee is unable to implement CDPHE’s recommendations, then CDPHE recommends that COGCC deny the McGavin Location.”
These included using electric drill rigs, which are quieter and cleaner than the natural gas rigs the company plans to use, using drilling muds free of volatile chemicals, using chillers on drilling fluids to reduce odors and keeping all equipment capable of generating noise inside the sound walls.
Kerr-McGee agreed with, or had already included in its plan, five of the recommendations, but took issue with the other seven, including electric drill rigs and odor control equipment. The COGCC staff largely agreed with Kerr-McGee.
The CDPHE letter, which was written by Sean Hackett, the department’s energy liaison, compared the McGavin site with the three drilling pads operated in northeast Broomfield by Civitas Resources, formerly Extraction Oil and Gas.
The Civitas pads were approved before Senate Bill 181 and are 816 feet to 728 feet from the closest homes, although the density of homes is greater around the McGavin site.
The pads, the CDPHE letter notes, include best management practices not slated for the McGavin site, including electric drill rigs, no permanent condensate tanks, the use of chillers and pipelines to carry water offsite.
Yet even with all that, Hackett said the sites “have resulted in a large number of complaints from people living nearby over the last several years.”
On Jan. 14, a large black plume of smoke was sent skyward from one of the pads near the Northwest Parkway in Broomfield when the operation was restarted after a valve malfunction led to an automatic shutdown.
Homeowners wrestling with buyer’s remorse
The prospect of drilling behind their Weld County houses is leaving frustrated homeowners around the Firestone site, a few miles south of where a severed flow line from an oil and gas well led to an explosion that destroyed a home and killed two men in 2017.
“I guess I could have found out Kerr-McGee owned the land, if I had hired an attorney and gone to the recorder of deeds,” McGehee, 56, who moved to Falcon Point a year ago from Gainesville, Florida, to work as a professor in the Regis University School of Physical Therapy.
“If I had read the Firestone zone code, I could have found out that any area can be developed for oil and gas,” he said. “I didn’t know. We were told the area was zoned for residential. When we moved in it was a hay field.”
Last October, when Michael Rando, 37, closed on his Falcon Point home, one of the closest to the drill site, he had been told that an oil company owned the land behind it, but the developer didn’t know anything about the plans to drill.
“My main concern is our market value,” Rando said in an email. “These homes are not inexpensive. I am concerned mainly with the annoyances, like increased road traffic, the lights at night, the noise.”
Bill and Julia Coffee were still unpacking from their move to Falcon Point when they got a community group flier about the McGavin site. They moved to Firestone from Louisville so all their living could be on one level, making it easier for Julia to recuperate from multiple surgeries.
“If we had known they were going to put in 26 wells in that field we wouldn’t have moved here,” Bill Coffee, 55, said. A big concern, he said, is that his wife is immunocompromised.
“If they go through with the plan, we’ll have to consider our options,” Coffee said. Moving might be a possibility.
“They are basically putting an industrial activity right in the middle of a residential and recreational area,” Coffee said.
Harry Riddle, 72, who moved into Falcon Point in September, and would also have a clear view of the McGavin pad from his backyard, said he has mixed feelings about Kerr-McGee’s plan.
“I don’t think it is compatible with the area,” Riddle said. “But if this doesn’t go through, they’ll put 300 houses in that field. I guess I’d rather have oil and gas development.”
Environmental and community groups see the McGavin site as a key litmus test of whether state regulators have shifted from promoting oil and gas development to protecting public health, safety and welfare and the environment.
“If they approve this one, what won’t they approve?” asked Kate Christensen, oil and gas campaign coordinator for the environmental group 350 Colorado. “If they approve this one it will be like SB-181 never passed. It will be like nothing really ever changed.”