A long row of newly-built homes in the Falcon Point at Saddleback subdivision lines a large empty field adjacent to the neighborhood off County Road 20 and Colorado Boulevard in Firestone, Colorado. Residents have learned that a large proposed oil and gas drilling site may be built in the field. Some residents in the subdivision say they were not told of the proposed oil and gas development before purchasing their homes. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kerr-McGee reversed course Wednesday and agreed to use an electric rig and non-polluting drilling muds and to pipe waste water off site in a bid to drill oil and gas wells within 2,000 feet of homes in a Firestone neighborhood.

Kerr-McGee, the state’s biggest oil and gas producer, announced the concessions during a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing. The company wants to drill 26 wells near 87 homes inside the state mandated buffer, with the closest residence 763 feet away.

The site, called the McGavin location, is part of Kerr-McGee’s Longs Peak drilling plan. It is also next to a wetland, the Saddleback Golf Course and the Firestone Trail.

The commission set aside the application until March 10 so that the company could make revisions. The commissioners also prodded Kerr-McGee to do another alternative site analysis to look for a location that would not impact so many homes.

“I am not convinced this is the only location,” Commissioner John Messner told the Kerr-McGee representatives.

In November 2020, the commission adopted a rule requiring a 2,000-foot buffer between drilling rigs and homes, unless an operator could demonstrate that a project within the buffer offered “substantially equivalent protections for public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources.”

“We’re glad to see the commission require Kerr-McGee to go back to the drawing board,” Mike Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice, said in an email. “We don’t know yet how COGCC will ultimately decide this application, though.”

In an advisory letter to the COGCC, the the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had 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.”

Among them was a call to use quieter, less polluting drill rigs, drilling muds free of volatile chemicals and the use of pipelines to transport water off site to cut down on pollution from tanks and truck traffic.

In its response, Kerr-McGee rejected all three. But on Wednesday Kelsey Wasylenky, an attorney for the oil company, said it was prepared to make all three conditions of approval for the site.

CDPHE had also asked Kerr-McGee to provide a site and electricity so its Colorado Air Monitoring Mobile Laboratory could monitor the McGavin site. The company said that it could not accommodate the mobile lab.

On Wednesday, Kerr-McGee also offered to pay for the operation for the mobile lab if CDPHE found a suitable monitoring location in the neighborhood.

The Kerr-McGee application includes a second Firestone site, Columbine, where the company wants to drill seven wells within 2,000 feet of of seven homes.

The biggest concern of commissioners with the Columbine site is that another 40 homes are slated to be constructed in the buffer area.

When asked if the changes addressed CDPHE’s concerns, Sean Hackett, the department’s energy liaison, said, “honestly, we still do have concerns … We will always have concerns about drilling in dense, populated areas.”

The McGavin site is a few miles south of where a severed flow line from an oil and gas well caused a home in a different Firestone subdivision to explode, killing two people. Kerr-McGee was fined $18.25 million for the 2017 explosion, the largest fine on state record.

The hearing Wednesday started with public testimony with three Firestone public officials voicing support for the project, and environmental groups and 29 residents of Firestone and neighboring towns that have heavy oil and gas development testifying in opposition.

“It is way too close to homes,” said Kathleen Scott, whose house backs directly to the McGavin site. “Kerr-McGee is claiming substantially equivalent protections, but have they shown them?”

Kate Merlin, an attorney with the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “Please do not create this new normal where offramps can be used by operators without showing substantially equivalent” protections.”

The concessions Kerr-McGee offered Wednesday did not assuage opponents.

“Even if Kerr-McGee complied with all of CDPHE’s recommendations we know, from the experience that Broomfield has had with those same attempts at protective measures, that it won’t be enough,” Kate Christensen, the oil and gas campaign coordinator for the environmental group 350 Colorado, said in an email. 

“The basics won’t change,” Christensen said. “This is a giant, dangerous industrial facility that is being proposed for a neighborhood and many residents are opposed.”

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe