Colorado: Battle lines drawn over fracking setbacks

Oil and gas drilling near schools and homes in Firestone, Colorado. Photo courtesy Shane Davis, Sierra Club, Rocky Mountain Chapter. Please click on the image to learn more.

Conservation advocates want 1,000-foot buffer that offers ‘presumptive protection’

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — With no end in sight to Colorado’s fracking boom, state officials are preparing to publish new rules on setbacks and groundwater monitoring — but those rules don’t do enough to protect the health and welfare of residents near gas drilling sites, according to a coalition of conservation groups.

“The state’s proposed change to minimum distances between fracking and homes is to keep current policy virtually unchanged,” said Charlie Montgomery, energy organizer of Conservation Colorado. “The current separation in urban and suburban areas is 350 feet.  The state’s proposed separation is 350 feet.”

State officials say they’ve been meeting with stakeholders for several months to develop the proposed new rules. Documents from the stakeholder process are online here.

“Setback distance is only one part of the equation and it’s worth noting that the majority of stakeholders have said they’d prefer no changes to current setback requirements,” said Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore. “The rules we’ve proposed also focus on enhanced communication between operators and the communities where they are conducting oil and gas operations, as well as greater mitigation of nuisance impacts, such as noise, lighting, odor and dust arising from operations,” Lepore added.

But conservation activists say public health is paramount, and a new report from Earthworks documents some of the chilling health risks faced by residents of gas patch communities.

Montgomery said the draft calls for small modifications in the location of drilling sites but fails to offer residents relief on the crucial issue of how far drilling and fracking are allowed from residences without landowner consent.

Lepore said the proposed rules give residents more opportunity to comment and engage in the permitting process.

“It’s important to recognize the myriad and significant public policy challenges at play, which include legal matters of property and mineral rights, as well as access to critical resources we all depend upon, economic activity, housing costs, suburban sprawl and quality of life,” Lepore said.

But conservation activists are pressing for a 1,000-foot buffer that offers presumptive protection from public health and safety risks. Amid widespread concerns raised by drilling and fracking near homes, conservationists say that citizens’ health and welfare should be the central issue and that distances between buildings and fracking sites should be increased.

There could be exceptions for more proximate wells if operators can meet protective standards and get the informed consent of affected citizens. The goal is to create a regulatory framework for citizens, operators, and local governments to work together on a drilling plan that best accommodates multiple interests.

“They’re proposing to drill 450 feet from my deck,” said Bob Arrington, a retired Battlement Mesa resident and member of Western Colorado Congress. “Keeping the current 350-foot buffer in place is not going to help our town reduce health or safety risks from oil and gas.”

“As fracking and drilling operations take place next to or even within neighborhoods, the central concern of families is their health and welfare, and in particular their potential exposure to toxic emissions,” said Josh Joswick, staff organizer of Colorado energy issues for the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance. “The state’s proposal is not tackling the problem everyone is talking about.”

Energy industry officials said they’ll be fully engaged in the final states of the rule-making process.

“We are closely evaluating the draft setback and ground water monitoring rule released by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission,” said Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “We plan to continue to engage in the stakeholder discussion, and we will also participate as a party to the rulemaking.

“The draft rule impacts many important stakeholders that play a large role in the economic success of this state, and we look forward to working with them as we move ahead.  Because we all use and require energy, we must collaborate to find pragmatic solutions emphasizing responsible development,” Schuller said.

“Everybody recognizes the obvious conflicts when fracking and drilling are proposed for residential neighborhoods,” said Mike Chiropolos, chief lands program counsel for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.  “Coloradoans understand that the energy industry is part of our landscape, but we need to keep neighborhoods free of heavy industrial operations and use modern technologies to protect families. Public health is not negotiable,”  Chiropolos said.

Modern horizontal drilling technologies enable companies to maintain a safe buffer from communities while still allowing for resource extraction, he added.

Documentation of health impacts from drilling operations is piling up, with residents of affected communities reporting unexplained migraine headaches, bleeding ears and sudden gastrointestinal health issues in children, Chiropolos said, describing some of what he’s seen while visiting residents in gas-patch communities.

Fracking and farms, photos courtesy SkyTruth and LightHawk. More photos in this SkyTrutch Flickr gallery.

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