A state commission has given preliminary approval to what could be the largest statewide setbacks for oil and gas wells in the country.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted Monday for 2,000-foot setbacks. A final vote on that rule and many others is expected in early November.
The COGCC said it believes the 2,000 feet of space that would be required between homes, schools and oil and gas wells would be the largest in the country.
However, the requirement comes with exceptions that could in practice result in shorter setbacks in certain cases, including when topography or technology can provide comparable protections at a shorter distance.
The setbacks and a first-of-its-kind emissions-monitoring rules for wells approved Sept. 23 by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission are part of the implementation of Senate Bill 181. Both panels have been holding public hearings, meeting with interest groups and writing rules to carry out the stated purpose of SB 181, which was a change in focus from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it in a way that protects the public and the environment.
If given final approval, the 2,000-foot setbacks would likely be the largest in the country, Kristy Hartman, the energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an email. She said the only other state she know with a setback of up to 2,000 feet is Michigan and it applies only to specific water resources.
“We’re thankful to the commissioners for listening to the testimony of impacted residents and listening to the science of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment study, which really was aligned with the stories that people have been telling for a very long time about the distance around which complaints and impacts show up,” said Emily Hornback, executive director of the Western Colorado Alliance.
The alliance is concerned about how the proposed exceptions to the 2,000-foot setback would be applied, Hornback said, but understands that companies might face site-specific limitations.
The 2,000-foot setback from schools and child care facilities couldn’t be waived under the proposed rules. Hearings would be held on requests for exceptions.
“Our organization has never been out to completely stop drilling in Western Colorado. We understand its role in our economy. Our neighbors and friends and family are employed in the industry,” Hornback said.
But industry representatives and supporters said 2,000-foot setbacks will devastate the oil and gas industry because it will severely limit where companies could drill. That in turn would cascade across Colorado’s economy, they warn, because the industry supports thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments and schools.
“The COGCC is meeting to discuss rules and regulations that are going to have a dire impact on the oil and gas industry here in the state, possibly shutting it down,” said state Sen. John Cooke, a Republican who represents Weld County, the state’s largest oil-producing county.
During a call with reporters last week, Cooke and other GOP legislators said approving 2,000-foot setbacks would defy voters’ wishes. In 2018, Colorado voters rejected a ballot measure requiring new wells be at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and other sites.
“In 2018, Proposition 112 was soundly defeated. Yet this governor and his appointees have decided to go rogue and not do what the people of Colorado have shared that they want accomplished,” said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.
Last week, members of the Denver Petroleum Club expressed its opposition to 2,000-foot setbacks in a letter to Gov. Jared Polis.
“The industry said this is Proposition 112 all over again. That’s just flatly inaccurate,” said Mike Freeman, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice, who is representing community and environmental groups in the hearings.
The 2018 initiative would have imposed 2,500-foot setbacks, with no exceptions, and would have included waterways, parks and other sites besides occupied buildings, said Freeman. He said he’s not aware of another state with setbacks of 2,000 feet or longer.
“This really would make Colorado a national leader in protecting public health and the environment,” said Freeman, adding that he will watch closely as exceptions are approved.
Asked Monday about warnings from the industry that the setbacks will render most areas off-limits in Colorado to drilling, COGCC Chairman Jeff Robbins said, “We fundamentally disagree with that statement from industry.”
The setbacks with the accompanying exceptions will allow for what is required under SB181, “which is approval of permits that are protective of health, safety, welfare the environment and wildlife resources,” Robbins added.
Senate Bill 181 made it through the legislature after Polis, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 and Democrats took control of both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly.
The law gives local governments more authority to regulate oil and gas when it comes to what happens on the surface.
“When we embarked on the historic passage of Senate Bill 181, we knew fundamental changes were necessary to enhance protection of health, safety and the environment, provide local governments a seat at the table, and cultivate more regulatory certainty for industry in the wake of years of ballot initiatives,” the governor’s office said in an email Friday, “And while we don’t provide comments on the specifics of an ongoing regulatory process, we have full faith in our staff and Commissioners at the Oil and Gas Commission to implement the legislation in a manner that achieves these critical objectives while working with a diverse set of stakeholders.”