DENVER–The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission set up a showdown with the state legislature Wednesday by signing off on a setbacks rule opposed by some Democrats and the environmental movement.
The commission gave preliminary approval to a staff proposal to extend the minimum distance between drilling rigs and residential development to 500 feet in both urban and rural areas. The current rule requires a setback of 150 feet in rural and 350 feet in urban communities.
The panel also agreed to play a greater role in mitigating against noise and odors by agreeing to review and approve drilling operations within 1,000 feet of high-occupancy buildings, including schools and hospitals.
The commission plans to meet before the end of the month for a final vote on the setbacks, but by then the issue may be moot. Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll has already said that she plans to introduce legislation that would push the buffer zone to 2,000 feet if the commission fails to do so.
Any bill passed by the legislature would overrule the commission’s work and land in the lap of Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has supported the commission’s rulemaking authority on state oil-and-gas development.
Commissioners stressed repeatedly Wednesday the need to strike a balance between the mineral rights of the oil-and-gas industry and the health and quality-of-life concerns of residents living near drilling operations.
“We have the fundamental question about property rights: my absolute right to do what I want on my property right up until the point where I impact my neighbor’s property. How do we balance those?” said commissioner Mike King.
Neither side was pleased with the commission’s decision. While environmentalists decried the result as a “huge disappointment,” industry representatives said the setback rule would increase construction and production costs, thus reducing royalties to counties that depend on revenue from drilling.
“We hope the policy makers will recognize the numerous economic repercussions that these increased setbacks will have on all stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, farmers, ranchers, developers and all Colorado taxpayers,” said Doug Flanders, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
“The current contentious dialogue about oil and gas development exposes a great disconnect between our reliance on oil and gas resources and our willingness to support its production,” said Flanders in a statement.
Mike Chiropolos, chief counsel of the lands program for Western Resource Advocates, said the 500-foot setbacks fail to address public exposure to potentially harmful emissions from drilling operations.
“The experts are the ones who are the lab rats, living in the gas patch, breathing the air” he said.
“They were here to tell us that they’re getting sick, and that the further they live from where the activities are happening, the less they get sick.”
A half-dozen Western Colorado residents testified during the hearing about health problems that they blamed on the proximity of their homes to existing wells.
Coloradans living on the Front Range “need to know that their lives are about to be turned upside-down,” said Tom Thompson of Rifle.
Industry officials had objected to the introduction of the testimony, saying there was no evidence that the ailments were related to emissions from drilling rigs.
Hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, has enabled the industry to extract fossil fuels in areas where development was once impossible, touching off conflicts with residents as drilling moves into residential areas.
Two state agencies announced Wednesday plans for a three-year, $1.3 million study of air pollution from drilling on public health. The study is expected to begin in the summer, but the legislature isn’t expected to wait for the results before acting.
“All you have to do is look at Longmont,” said Mr. Chiropolos, referring to the Nov. 6 vote by Longmont residents to ban fracking. “There’s going to be a clamor, there’s going to be a popular clamor for the legislature to take this up, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t.”