Comment: Expand the oil drilling setbacks

Let me start by drawing on what is clearly a hyper-dramatic illustration:

A few days back, an oil well blew out near Douglas, Wyo., causing 50 residents of the rolling prairie to evacuate their homes amid concern that a spewing cloud of natural gas could explode.

Witnesses told a TV station they could hear the roaring gas from six miles away.

Which, I think we can all agree, is a lot farther than 350 feet, the current setback required under Colorado law between oil operations and civilization.

Now, thankfully, this sort of thing is rare. But no matter how much you might love the smell of methane in the morning, would the idea of putting a little more distance between rigs and, say, elementary schools really be such a job-killer?

Somehow, I doubt it.

The oil money, naturally, doesn’t like the idea of anyone befouling its interests, which helps explain the bill that was introduced in the Colorado House last month.

If passed, the bill could bar communities from sharing in state severance tax revenues if they enact oil drilling restrictions any tougher than the state’s. In other words, we’ll punish any mayors and city councils that fail to toe the line.

This sort of legislation might not have been necessary had Gov. Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force done a better job to help patch things up in our oil patches.

Instead, it came up with a string of nothing-sandwich suggestions. Among them:

• Encouraging drillers to meet with local officials early in the application process.

• Strengthening the communication between the state oil and gas commission and local governments on permitting and violation issues.

The problem is that the state hasn’t until now done enough to protect the interests of its people, and so, as the Business Report’s Steve Lynn wrote in April, groups of mostly concerned parents like Erie Rising are left to fight against big, bad oil on their own – whether oil deserves the bashing it’s getting or not.

These battles aren’t isolated to small towns on the plains. In late April, about 10 days after the task force released its recommendations, the Loveland Reporter-Herald reported that a deal between McWhinney and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to drill for oil and gas under Centerra had been shelved, at least temporarily.

The decision came amid anger from Centerra homeowners that they hadn’t been told of the drilling plans.

Centerra GM Jay Hardy, hoping to calm nerves, said any drilling pads that are installed would be placed no less than three-quarters of a mile from any residential area.

Is that going to pacify homeowners who live in what they believed was a nature preserve?

I doubt it.

What we need, for starters, is a setback of 1,000 feet. The majority of wells in Colorado already are at least 1,000 feet from residences and schools, so boosting the setback isn’t likely to drive the oil companies away.

The alternative isn’t pretty. We can expect to see more protest signs, more angry council meetings and lots of lawsuits. And while the lawyers and the lobbyists will make a lot of money, a lot of families along the Front Range will be left living in homes that they wish they could sell but can’t because they will have been left underwater by the gushers down the block.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Northern Colorado Business Report. He can be reached at 970-232-3142 or


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