Most Coloradans appreciate the importance of a strong economy and energy independence. Oil and gas reserves in Colorado are plentiful, but because of the way reserves are developed, extraction poses many concerns for residents living among drill rigs, fracking, pump jacks and heavy truck traffic.
One prominent debate is how close wells and production facilities should be to homes, schools, hospitals and other occupied buildings.
The current state standards established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) are a 150-foot buffer from structures in rural areas of Colorado and 350 feet in high density urban/areas.
The 150-foot standard was adopted to make sure a drill rig would not hit any surrounding structures if it fell. It is less clear what the 350-foot standard is based on.
However, what is clear is that neither standard properly considers potential impacts to the health, safety and welfare of people living close to drilling and fracking activity.
During my tenure as a Garfield County commissioner, my county experienced well fires that would have incinerated homes had they been situated 500 feet from the structure, fumes that drove landowners from their homes, and water well contamination that would not have occurred with greater setbacks.
The current COGCC staff recommendation of a statewide 350-foot setback is not sufficient.
During the past decade there has been strong debate in Colorado about the impacts of oil and gas development on Colorado's public health, safety, environment and wildlife. The industry's response has been to improve technology to allow for drilling at greater distances. They are now able to extract deposits as far as 9,000 feet from the well site.
The COGCC should embrace such technological innovations and increase setbacks to a distance that will keep Coloradans safe and reduce environmental impacts.
In Colorado, people often own their land and not the subsurface mineral rights. This means that a large number of Colorado residents are subjected to the impacts of oil and gas development without sharing in the profit and without sufficient legal standing to participate in determining where wells and production facilities are sited on their land.
To address this, landowners impacted by oil and gas development should be given party status by the rules covering setbacks, because the location where drilling takes place directly impacts a property owner's land value, quality of life, health and safety.
An ongoing debate in Colorado is who has authority over regulating the various aspects of oil and gas development.
Colorado's governing structure makes it logical for local government to regulate oil and gas activity as it relates to land use. The state has resources to regulate the technical aspects of energy development.
Local governments, both counties and municipalities, have the authority, resources and expertise to regulate land use planning. The various arms of government are supposed to work cooperatively to protect the health, safety and welfare of their constituents.
Counties and municipalities should exercise their authority and determine what setback, above the state's minimum, makes most sense for their jurisdiction. The state should embrace this partnership.
The oil and gas industry, in many respects, has improved its approach to development, and technology has greatly advanced from a decade ago. However, where oil and gas development has occurred, we have seen compromised systems and human error, resulting in injury, death, loss of quality of life and land values and pollution to our water, air and soil.
Colorado has an opportunity to take the lead in protecting the health, safety and welfare of the people living near oil and gas development.
The COGCC should demonstrate strong leadership by adopting a statewide regulation that requires a minimum 1,000-foot setback from homes and 1,500 feet from high occupancy buildings, makes land owners within 1,000 feet party to the process, and recognizes local government's authority to require a greater setback where appropriate. Variances to site pads closer to homes, schools, hospitals and other public buildings can be granted if all impacted parties agree and if the COGCC and local government believe it is in the best interest of the public.
- Tresi Houpt of Glenwood Springs is a former member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and a former Garfield County commissioner.