Fracking buffer rules strike the right chord

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission angered environmentalists as well as industry interests recently when it issued a proposed set of new rules regarding the minimum distances between oil rigs and residences and other buildings.

A more dispassionate analysis, however, leaves it clear that the state agency that oversees the oil and gas business deserves a round of applause for striking the right balance between warring parties.

No one got exactly what they wanted out of the process, but the bottom line is that bigger buffers between industrial activity spewing toxic emissions of all sorts and homes filled with humans can’t be a terribly bad outcome.

The regulators — launching last fall into an effort to update rules spelled out in 2008 as the drilling boom picked up steam — knew they would be contending with intense pressure from all sides.

“We want to get it right, as best as we can, for as many people as we can,” commission director Matt Lepore said at the time.

There was really hardly any chance of making everyone happy. In the end, industry got off relatively easy, because the regulators could have gone much further.

Under the old rules, at least 350 feet of separation was required between buildings in high-density areas and 150 feet in rural areas. Environmentalists and others called for setbacks of at least 1,000 feet from homes.

According to a draft of the new rules, drilling setbacks will now be extended to a blanket 500 feet.

Here’s what Gov. Hickenlooper had to say about the reaction to the proposed rules, a pretty good indication that COGCC did its job well:

“Right now the oil and gas community hates my guts and they won’t return my calls. And the environmental lobby wants to hang me in effigy,” Hickenlooper said in remarks at the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry luncheon. “If you can do that, then it must be doing some good.”

Among those left unhappy with the results are some folks in Greeley, including Mayor Tom Norton.

Greeley, the mayor says, will lose the ability to develop up to 33 percent of the land in its long-range development area under the new setbacks.

But farmers, ranchers and other landowners will be able to directly negotiate with oil and gas companies, and so there’s a measure of flexibility built into what the regulators have come up with.

“I think it’s unfortunate that the oil and gas commission is not any smarter than to understand the big picture,” Norton told the Greeley Tribune.

Actually, the big picture includes the health of residents in homes surrounded by oil drilling operations.

If you haven’t yet, please read our Steve Lynn’s story on the cover of this issue of the Business Report, focusing on the illnesses reported by the parents of children and others who live next to oil and gas wells.

These new setbacks are about to become law following a process that began nearly a year ago with a series of meetings and presentations aimed at addressing everyone’s concerns.

The commission heard from environmentalists, homeowners, the energy industry, elected officials, mineral owners, health experts, business leaders and more.

“We understand that these rules do not leave any one group of interests completely satisfied,” Lepore said. “We do expect most everyone who worked collaboratively with us will see components they helped initiate incorporated into these rules.”

Whether they do or not, the commission tackled this highly contentious issue in what appears to be a responsible and balanced manner, moving forward with reforms designed to help protect Coloradoans without stripping private industry of its legitimate right to coax precious fossil fuels from below our feet.

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

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