Oil and gas regulators signal support for 2,000-foot setbacks

By: - September 10, 2020 9:55 am

A pump jack is pictured near homes in Frederick on June 24, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

A majority of the commission overseeing oil and gas drilling in Colorado on Wednesday voiced support for a significant increase in the state’s mandatory “setback” distances between new wells and occupied buildings.

“I think we’re tasked with making a setback, and a regulatory regime, that is protective,” Jeff Robbins, chair of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said during a Sept. 9 rulemaking hearing. “So where I land is that we should have a setback that is 2,000 feet to one or more building units.”

The 2,000-foot setback, supported by Robbins and three other members of the five-member commission, would quadruple the current distance required between new wells and many occupied buildings. Prior to commissioners’ comments Wednesday, COGCC staff had proposed a more modest increase in setbacks, including a 1,500-foot standard from larger, high-occupancy buildings, while leaving the current 500-foot setback from a single building unit in place.

Robbins said his views were driven not only by the findings of a 2019 study on the health risks of drilling by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but also by years of testimony from impacted residents whose experiences aligned closely with the study’s results.

“What really hearkens home for me is that science, and what CDPHE said the complaints should be, line up precisely with what the complaints have been,” Robbins said. “If we look at our complaint logs at CDPHE and COGCC … 60% of the health concerns reported to the Oil and Gas Health Information Response Program had these kinds of complaints.”

In 2018, Colorado voters rejected a rigid 2,500-foot setback proposed by Proposition 112, a ballot measure backed by anti-fracking group Colorado Rising. The 2,000-foot setback floated by COGCC commissioners would differ from Proposition 112 in significant ways — most notably by including a waiver process through which landowners or the commission itself could suspend the setback.

“We should have a provision … that is waivable,” said Robbins. “That’s based upon the commission making a finding that the location, even if it’s within that setback, that it’s protective of public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife resources. I think the burden of proof for that potential waiver goes to the operator who’s asking for it.”

The COGCC’s so-called Mission Change rules — required by Senate Bill 19-181, the oil and gas reform legislation passed by Colorado Democrats last year — have yet to be finalized, and are subject to change before the commission votes on final approval of the new rules later this month.

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Chase Woodruff
Chase Woodruff

Reporter Chase Woodruff covers the environment, the economy and other stories for Colorado Newsline.