By Sierra Shamer, Visiting Scholar, FracTracker Alliance
In 2012, citizens of Longmont, Colorado voted to increase setback distances of oil and gas infrastructure from occupied buildings. As well pads and storage facilities crept closer to homes, schools, and playgrounds, concerns of air, water, and noise pollution steadily grew. These regulations to protect public health and safety in Longmont culminated in an outright ban of hydraulic fracturing / directional drilling within their boundary. This prompted the state regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to sue the town, arguing that only the state has the power to regulate energy development. While the suit was dropped, the ban was overruled in 2014 in the Boulder District Court, determining that the city did not have the authority to prohibit what is permitted throughout the state. The city motioned for a Stay Pending Appeal and it was granted by the court – the ban on fracking in Longmont will stay in effect until the case is settled.
In response to these local challenges of oil and gas expansion, the COGCC passed new setback rules. However, with loopholes, exceptions, and an increasing awareness of public health and safety threats, Coloradans have continued to demand increased and enforced setback distances. This article highlights the issue of setback regulations in Colorado, featuring a map of Weld County that exemplifies the statewide expansion of fracking wells into communities.
Colorado Setbacks Regulation
The COGCC passed new setback rules for oil and gas facilities in February of 2013 with a stated purpose of decreasing the “potential adverse health and safety risks to the public and the environment, including spills, odors, noise, dust, and lighting.” Prior rules permitted drilling within 150 feet of occupied buildings in a rural area and within 350 feet in an urban area. A COGCC report in October 2013 stated that 600 oil and gas locations were located within 500 feet of occupied buildings, 26% of the total. The new regulations increased the minimum setback distance to 500 feet, adding a 350-foot setback from outdoor recreational areas such as playgrounds or sports fields, and a 1,000-foot setback from high occupancy building such as schools or hospitals. It also included 1,000-foot buffer distances from these outdoor areas and buildings within which facilities are permitted but require increased on-site mitigation to prevent air, noise, and water pollution. These rules took effect on August 1, 2013.
Colorado’s setback rules have been criticized by organizations, activists, landowners, and researchers who argue that the loopholes and exemptions allowed by the COGCC make the rules ineffective, and even if they were enforced, the modest increase in setback distance would not adequately protect citizens from negative impacts. Exceptions to the rules, shown in the table below, are included the regulations and are available for the majority of setback distances identified, allowing oil and gas facilities to continue development in close proximity to communities. The Western Resource Advocates, a conservation organization in Colorado, identifies two commonplace built-in exceptions to the 500-foot minimum setback rule: the “Beware Thy Neighbor” exception, allows surface landowners the ability to allow wells within setback distances, and the “Expansion Exception,” which allows active well pads the ability to expand even if they are within the new setback distances. If exceptions are granted, the facility must include additional mitigation measures to lessen air and noise pollution and safeguard against potential spills due to the proximity of communities.
In 2015, the University of Denver and the Sierra Club conducted a review of compliance with these setback regulations, finding that 181 permits approved after the rules were enacted lacked legally required information. These permits will result in 951 wells, 1221 oil and condensate tanks, and 932 separators throughout the state, concentrated in counties like Garfield, La Plata, and Weld that have the most widespread oil and gas development. This review identified that in Weld County, permits for 798 wells, 1140 tanks, and 800 separators lacked critical information the COGCC required.
In February of this year, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives evaluated the adequacy of setbacks in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado. The researchers concluded that the current s setbacks are insufficient to protect public health and safety, leaving communities vulnerable. Further, they claim while that there is no defined setback that will ensure the safety of a population, all three states should adopt larger setbacks distances and increased mitigation measures.
Armed with health and safety information, evidence of COGCC lack of enforcement, and the lived experiences of Coloradans, communities and groups are organizing around ballot initiatives. These initiatives would become part of the state constitution, and would to increase setback distances and secure the ability of local governments to determine where development occurs within their boundaries. Unlike the internal rules and regulations determined by the COGCC, these additions to the state constitution would offer no exceptions.
The Western Colorado Congress (WCC) a group that organizes communities around threats to environmental and public health, advocated in 2013 for 1,000-foot setbacks from homes and 1,500-foot setbacks from schools. They continue to push for increased distances and support ballot initiatives that allow local governmental control of oil and gas development. Current ballot initiatives, created by Coloradans Resisting Extreme Energy Development (CREED) demand local government control of oil and gas infrastructure and 2,500-foot setbacks from homes, schools, outdoor recreation areas, and sources of drinking water. This setback distance is based on a Colorado health study, concluding that people living with a half-mile of wells had an increased risk of illness than those further away.
Weld County: A Closer Look
Weld County has experienced dramatic oil and gas development, with increasing infrastructure permitted closer and closer to residents’ homes and communities. Currently, there are over 12,200 directional wells in Weld County and over 35,300 wells in total. The map below uses data accessed from the COGGC on April 7th, 2016 and address points data from Weld County. The address points are located within the center of homes, and while setbacks distances are measured from the center of the well pad to the nearest wall of the building, the address points still demonstrate the proximity and danger of encroaching infrastructure. The map identifies directional wells permitted within the designated setback of 500 feet and the buffer zone of 1,000 feet and pending directional wells within proposed 1,000 and 2,500-foot setbacks. Address points within these setbacks are identified, and if you select the Directional Lines layer, the underground directional well lines become visible.
The state, the COGCC, and the industry oppose these initiatives, arguing that it will hinder the economic development of Colorado and threaten state control of regulation. Industry advocates have claimed that a 2,500-foot setback would eliminate 87% of new operations in Weld County. This strong opposition often results in such initiatives being dropped or voted out, a reality that occurred earlier this month when two of three initiatives relating to oil and gas were voted down the state house of representatives.
Currently, 48% of addresses (around 53,700) in Weld County are within 2,500 feet of at least one directional well, and 9% are within 1,000 feet. Since August 2013, 16 directional wells have been permitted within 500 feet of buildings, and 207 have been permitted within 1,000 feet. Regarding new operations in Weld County, of the 379 pending directional wells, 319 of them are within 2,500 feet of homes – around 84% – slightly less than the industry claimed, but close. However, is important to note that many pending wells are planned on existing well pads, constructed prior to the new rules, and can be given exceptions. Additionally, the technology of directional drilling allows greater flexibility. When viewing the directional lines on the map, it is clear that wells can be drilled in any direction from a well pad, suggesting that companies could place surface wells further away from homes and still access the underground resource.
Moving Forward With Setbacks
Demands for protection from oil and gas encroachment are steadily increasing. The group, Coloradans Against Fracking, a large coalition of organizations, has endorsed the 2016 ballot initiatives put forward by CREED. It is clear that the state can accept continuous challenges to oil and gas development, particularly if rules and regulations are neglected at the expense of public health and safety.
Feature image by Western Colorado Congress (WCC).