Editor’s Note: Mike Chiropolos is Chief Counsel, Lands Program at Western Resource Advocates.
Minimize quantities of toxics and maximize setback distances as part of a comprehensive approach
As the State of Colorado considers how much to increase residential setbacks from oil and gas drilling and fracking operations, Western Resource Advocates is leading efforts for comprehensive improvements. Our letter is posted online.
Colorado needs to approve significant increases to setbacks in a comprehensive framework of updated rules addressing today’s technologies and formations – by implementing the legislative mandate that COGCC rules “protect the health, safety and welfare of the general public in the conduct of oil and gas operations,” C.R.S. 34-6-106(11)(a)(II).
Public health considerations trump any interest in developing oil and gas. The operator/lessee has the right to request a waiver of the setback, but no right to obtain a waiver where public health could be compromised. Setbacks need to be increased so that the presumption is that the operator cannot drill and frack too close to homes for safety and public health purposes – putting burden of obtaining waiver squarely where it belongs: with industry.
As drilling expands across the state and the Front Range, more and more Colorado citizens are suffering health problems from drilling and fracking operations within a few hundred feet of their homes. Cities and counties across the state are approving stronger protections for their citizens, only to be threatened with litigation from a state government apparently willing to intimidate its political subdivisions rather than address real problems consistent with state law. Litigation is not a solution nor will it make these issues go away. The State needs to act.
Unfortunately, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment appears to be ignoring the basic principle that prevention is the most effective public health approach. See http://cogcc.state.co.us/library/setbackstakeholdergroup/Recommendations/CDPHE.pdf Mitigation and various BMPs [Best Management Practices] might address some symptoms and nibble around the edges of what’s making people sick – but they don’t get at the root cause: allowing far too much industrial activity utilizing toxic chemicals that pollute our air and water, far too close to homes and communities resulting in far too much exposure.
Ample science and experience establishes that the statutory mandate of protecting human health and the environment in the conduct of oil and gas operations will be furthered by 1) minimizing the quantities of emissions and other toxics, and 2) maximizing the distance between these industrial sites and both residences and public places. These two principles should guide state policy on oil and gas activities in populated areas.
Colorado’s current 350 foot setbacks (only 150 feet in rural areas) are lagging far behind other states. Maryland requires 1,000 foot residential setbacks. Pennsylvania, North Dakota and parts of Louisiana require 500 foot setbacks. Colorado has a current rule on well location providing that wells drilled 2,500 feet or more “shall be located not less than six hundred (600) feet from any lease line[.]” Surely, homeowners and families are entitled to greater setbacks than arbitrary lease boundaries?
Western Resource Advocates and its partners at San Juan Citizens’ Alliance and Western Colorado Congress called for increasing Colorado’s setbacks to 1,000 feet for homes, and 1,500 feet for schools and hospitals. The letter outlines a comprehensive package of reforms building off four initiatives announced by Governor Hickenlooper: setbacks, well integrity, water quality, and fugitive emissions (air quality, health and climate). Improved planning subject to “Comprehensive Drilling Plans” and “Geographic Area Plans” (COGCC Rules 216 and 503) are integral to exploring win-win solutions to perceived conflicts.
Advanced technologies and planning tools offer the ability to significantly limit impacts and focus the footprint of development. Colorado must enact strong new regulations that serve as a national model for balancing public health and environmental protection, including wildlife and habitat, with energy development.
Two upcoming meeting on September 14 and 27 will determine the State’s course of action. The Colorado Oil & Gas Commission should remember that legislators and local government will continue to pursue meaningful protections for citizens and the environment if state agencies fail to do so. Half measures will not suffice: comprehensive reforms are needed.