Colorado regulators signal support for 2,000-foot buffers between fracking sites, homes

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Setbacks, the source of some of the most intense debate around oil and gas drilling in Colorado, are bound to generate even more heat because the majority on a panel that is rewriting regulations favors large buffers around well sites.

After nearly five days of hearings, all but one member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voiced support Wednesday for 2,000-foot setbacks, significantly larger than those proposed by the COGCC staff.

The commission won’t vote on the regulation until it has completed hearings on all the proposed rules, expected in late October.

Homeowners, community and environmental activists and some elected officials have urged the commission to require large setbacks, as large as 2,500 feet, from schools and homes. Industry representatives say such extensive setbacks will drive up costs and substantially limit where companies can drill.

But proponents of putting more space between fracking and where people live and work argued that Senate Bill 181, a 2019 law that mandated an overhaul of oil and gas rules, requires that the public’s welfare be prioritized when regulating the development.

“Senate Bill 181 was a sea change in the law. The commission’s duty is to protect public health, safety and welfare and to ensure that any approvals of oil and gas operations are done subject to protection of those values,” said Mike Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice who represents community and environmental groups in the hearings.

Dave Neslin, a former COGCC director and an attorney representing the industry, said in a hearing Tuesday that larger setbacks “exponentially increase the amount of land that is off limits to oil and gas developments” and increase the likelihood of conflicts with local governments over well locations.

In addition to prioritizing health and environmental concerns, SB 181 expanded local governments’ authority to regulate the surface operations of oil and gas production. Weld and Garfield counties are among the local governments that want smaller setbacks.

Jeff Robbins, the former COGCC director and current commission chairman, said SB 181 changed the agency’s mission from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it in a reasonable manner.

“I don’t believe that SB 181 is informing us that we are to create a setback that is workable for all parties. Rather, I think that we’re tasked with making a setback and a regulatory regime that is protective,” Robbins said.

Robbins acknowledged the conflicting interpretations of health studies and reports that experts and advocates on one side used to support larger setbacks and experts and advocates on the other said showed no credible evidence of harmful effects within a certain distance. He referred to a 2019 report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that outlined certain short-term health impacts for people living within 2,000 feet of fracking sites.

“What really harkens home for me is that science and what CDPHE says the complaints should be lined up precisely with what the complaints have been,” Robbins said.

The chairman and other supporters of the larger setback suggested that exceptions could be made under certain conditions. The commission and staff said they would discuss that further.

The current setback is 200 feet from the well, 500 feet in certain residential areas and 1,000 feet from schools. The COGCC staff recommended a minimum setback of 2,000 feet from a school or child care center. For homes, the requirement would be 500 feet for fewer than 10 residential units or a minimum of 1,500 feet from 10 or more residential buildings or one multi-unit residence.

The distance would be measured from the edge of the well site, or pad, which industry representatives said could add hundreds of feet to the official setback. Bill Gonzalez, a former land manager for Occidental Petroleum, was the only commissioner who didn’t support the 2,000-foot setback.

A report released Wednesday by the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado-Boulder said 1,500-foot setbacks between well sites and buildings or waterways would have minimal impacts on the availability of oil and gas. But the impacts would increase significantly at 2,500 feet or more, according to the report.

Researchers said Colorado would lose about $500 million in annual revenues, roughly 0.1% of the state’s gross domestic product, by requiring setbacks of 1,500 feet. At 2,500 feet, the losses would jump to $4.5 billion, the study said.

The annual revenue losses would be roughly $2.5 billion, or about 0.66% of the state’s GDP, with 2,000-foot setbacks, Daniel Kaffine, a CU economics professor and one of the report’s authors said in an email.

In 2018, Colorado voters rejected a ballot proposal that would have imposed 2,500-foot setbacks.

This content was originally published here.

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