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A horizontal drilling rig at work near a pad where at least a dozen wells have already been completed south of Weld County Road 34, east of Mead, along a Great Western Railroad spur on May 26, 2020. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado oil and gas regulators Wednesday approved a plan to drill 19 horizontal oil and gas wells between two fast-growing Front Range suburbs over a protest by Broomfield, which said the project could pose public health risks.

Crestone Peak Resources won approval for the drilling plan from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission after a hearing that was a battle of dueling scientific analyses.

Broomfield presented air monitoring data, which captured spikes in air emissions of hazardous chemicals, such as benzene, which the city said were linked to oil and gas operations.

It also offered a health survey, done in coordination with researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health, that showed people living closer to well pads reported higher incidences of respiratory problems and other health issues.

Meagan Weisner, Broomfield’s senior environmental epidemiologist, said that residents in that area adjacent to the proposed project are already coping with multiple oil and gas operations. 

“They don’t live near one well pad, they live near six of them,” Weisner said. “So adding another megawell pad with 19 wells is going to add to it.”

“It is the potential for exposure that is the concern and that is the reason for proceeding with caution,” she said.

Broomfield was able to lodge its protest under a new rule allowing not only the local government where a project is located to intervene in commission proceedings, but those proximate to the site. It was the first time the new rule was used.

The Cosslett East site is in unincorporated Weld County between Broomfield and Erie. Erie had reached a separate agreement with Crestone on the project.

Crestone, a subsidiary of Civitas Resources, presented its own air monitoring data and an epidemiological critique of Broomfield’s health study.

The company’s environmental consultant CTEH monitored 10 Crestone sites at 300 feet 5,000 feet from the well pads for 100 days, collecting 24,000 real-time measurements.

The air sampling found readings of volatile organic chemicals were “infrequent and sporadic,” according to Tami McMullin, a senior toxicologist at CTEH. There were no benzene readings.

Katelyn Hall, a CTEH senior epidemiologist, told the commission that the self-reported symptom survey done by Broomfield has limited value and “cannot show causalities.”

It is difficult to know if the disease or symptom actually occurred before an exposure and whether they have causes other than oil and gas operations, she said.

In addition, Hall said the Broomfield study surveyed residents up to 2 miles from a pad, but the proposed Crestone site is more than 3 miles away.

“The Broomfield health survey doesn’t show the Cosslett site would impact health,” Hall said.

“We have dueling science, dueling data, dueling opinions,” Commissioner Karin McGowan said. ”This is a community that feels that oil and gas has affected their quality of life. We have to take that into consideration … but Broomfield didn’t prove their point.”

The fact that both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the staff of the oil and gas commission recommended approval also weighed in Crestone’s favor, commissioners said.

The recommendations were based on the oil and gas company adopting more than 100 best management practices, or BMPs, as part of its application. 

These include about 40 clean air BMPs, including using electric drill rigs and high-efficiency engines and controlling emissions during drilling, hydrofracturing and initial well development. These are periods Broomfield documented as having higher emissions.

As part of the plan, Crestone will also plug and abandon six old vertical oil wells, including four in Broomfield.

There were two residences within the state’s required 2,000-foot setback from the well pad, but Crestone had received waivers from both homeowners.

“Crestone met its burden of proof,” Commission Chairman Jeff Robbins said. “Weighing all of that scientific evidence, I did not feel the science information from Broomfield outweighed the scientific information from Crestone.”

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe