Balancing setbacks, oil drilling interests

An increase in oil and gas development is bringing jobs, revenues and a boost of economic vigor to Northern Colorado. But drilling and completing an oil and gas well is an industrial operation that can mean more trucks on the road, more dust, noise, odors and activity 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is responsible for ensuring that the state’s oil and gas resources are developed efficiently, and in a manner that prevents waste and protects the legal rights of mineral owners. Equally important, we are charged with protecting public health and welfare, the environment and wildlife from the impacts that accompany development and production of these vital resources.

In recent years, the commission’s regulations have evolved to keep pace with technological advances that have revolutionized oil and gas development in Colorado and across the nation. Fundamental changes began in 2007, when the legislature revised the make-up of the commission to add commissioners with education, training, or experience in environmental or wildlife protection, soil conservation and agricultural production. In addition, two commissioners must be from the West Slope, one must be a local government official and one must be a royalty owner.

The restructured commission embarked on a sweeping, 18-month overhaul of our regulations that included new protections for wildlife and the environment. The resulting rules are recognized as a national model for environmental protection. This year, the COGCC adopted rules that require operators to disclose hydraulic fracturing chemicals. The environmental community has championed Colorado’s frack disclosure rules as a benchmark for other states to emulate.

On Oct. 1, the commission determined to proceed with two new rulemakings: Over the next three months the commission will consider new rules to require greater monitoring of groundwater quality statewide; and the commission will weigh proposed rules governing setback distances between wells and buildings. The setback rules would mandate operators to take additional steps to minimize disturbances when extracting resources in close proximity to communities.

Commission staff is proposing a rule to require groundwater samples from two water wells, or other features such as springs or livestock wells, within one mile of an oil and gas well. One set of samples would be taken prior to drilling, another one year after drilling and a third set five years later. Such sampling would help determine – through any changes in quality after the baseline sample was taken – whether an oil and gas development may have affected nearby groundwater.

The proposed groundwater monitoring program would expand on some existing rules that require similar sampling in specific geographic regions. It would also enhance an existing and successful statewide voluntary program that began this year and has seen participation from operators drilling more than 90 percent of the wells in Colorado. Finally, it would dramatically increase the size of an already robust database of water quality maintained by the commission, which currently houses more than 6,000 results and is available to the public online at the commission’s website.

The proposed setback rules would create a minimum setback distance of 350 feet to apply statewide. Additionally, a 750-foot setback from buildings that regularly house more than 50 people, such as schools and hospitals, would be required. And, the proposed rules would require operators to take steps to eliminate or minimize noise, lighting, odors and dust in a buffer zone out to 1,000 feet from a proposed well or other production facility.

The proposed rules also mandate greater communication to nearby residents before wells are drilled. This is a more important component that many might realize. Why? We’ve learned that often disputes between residents and operators could have been eliminated or at least alleviated with greater outreach before drilling activities begin.

These proposed amendments to improve water quality monitoring and improve standards for wells drilled near occupied buildings represent another example of the way Colorado’s oil and gas regulations are evolving to deal with changing technology and circumstances. Our work over the past several years, in partnership with the state legislature, industry, local governments and the environmental community, has led to a more balanced commission, drilling and hydraulic fracturing rules that serve as a national template and ongoing efforts to protect our air, water and neighborhoods.

We all use and depend upon oil and natural gas every day, in a multitude of ways. American ingenuity and technological prowess have greatly enhanced our ability to harness these resources domestically: Oil production in Colorado is on pace to set an all-time record this year, while domestic production of natural gas has dramatically lowered residential heating and cooling costs, and is contributing to a resurgence in domestic manufacturing. At the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, we recognize production of these natural resources must be done responsibly, in a manner that protects Colorado’s singular environment and preserves the exceptional quality of life Coloradoan’s enjoy.

Matthew Lepore is the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and can be reached at


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