GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado - Residents of Garfield, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties, according to an attorney familiar with oil and gas issues, may expect that proposed new oil and gas regulations will mean better protection against possible air pollution from nearby gas drilling rigs.
But that is not necessarily the case, said Matt Sura, a Boulder attorney working with the Wilderness Workshop and, in Garfield County, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA).
Current rules governing oil and gas drilling rigs generally require wells to be at least 150 feet away from buildings in rural areas, or 350 feet in high-density areas, to minimize air pollution, odors and other nuisance effects on residents.
Proposed changes to those rules would keep drilling rigs at least 200 feet away from buildings, and special approval from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) would be required for wells within 750 feet of high-occupancy buildings like hospitals or schools.
In addition, drillers would be required to consult with building owners on the location of new wells within 350 feet of buildings. There could be exceptions if a company wants to add a new well to an existing location.
Some environmental groups, including GVCA and the Battlement Concerned Citizens in Battlement Mesa, have supported keeping wells at least 1,000 feet back from buildings.
The Colorado Cattlemen's Association and Colorado Farm Bureau, however, say that setbacks of that extent could put wells out in the middle of farmland, instead of allowing them to be tucked in closer to agricultural buildings, according to a report from the Associated Press.
Sura, who spent 10 hours on Tuesday at a hearing before the COGCC, said that Garfield County residents currently are better protected than many around the state, and that the proposed changes may reduce that protection.
"For Garfield County residents," Sura said, "the proposed [setback] rules are a real step backward."
He pointed to Rule 805 in the COGCC policies and regulations, which sets out particular mitigation requirements for oil and gas drilling facilities within a quarter-mile of a home or other occupied structure, if that structure is in Garfield, Mesa or Rio Blanco counties. Any rig operating within that range, he said, must install special air pollution controls to cut down emissions.
"It really is working," Sura said of the regulation. "Garfield County has cleaner air as a result."
Sura said the COGCC is considering whether to expand Rule 805 to cover the entire state.
If that is done, Sura said, "They're putting greater protections in place for people living near gas rigs in the rest of the state."
But, he added, the COGCC also is considering reducing the distance triggering the mitigation requirement from a quarter-mile to 1,000 feet, which would be 320-feet shorter than the existing standard.
"It doesn't seem like a lot," Sura said, "but it can make a big difference."
He said there are indications that the mitigation distance may be left at a quarter-mile, but so far nothing official.
Also under discussion at the COGCC hearings are proposed changes to water quality monitoring requirements for oil and gas drillers.
Representatives of Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress and GVCA, as well as the Garfield County government, have obtained formal "party status" for the hearings and will be providing formal input into the process.
Although the hearings were to conclude this week, provisions have been made to extend the hearings into 2013 if needed.