Oil and gas commission gives preliminary OK to new 500-foot buffer rules

Environmentalists called them “pathetically weak,” but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Wednesday nonetheless gave its preliminary OK to new rules putting at least 500 feet of space between homes and oil and gas drilling operations.

The oil and gas industry also expressed its dissatisfaction.

Under the new rules:

• Existing setback, or buffer, standards of 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas will be extended to a uniform 500 feet statewide.

• Operators wanting to drill within 1,000 feet of an occupied building would be required to meet new and enhanced measures to limit the disruptions a nearby drill site can create. Those measures include closed-loop drilling that eliminate pits, liner standards to protect against spills, capture of gases to reduce odors and emissions, as well as strict controls on the nuisance impacts of noise, dust and lighting.

• Drilling operations cannot operate within 1,000 feet of buildings housing larger numbers of people, such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals, without a hearing before the commission.

• Operators must engage in expanded notice and outreach efforts with nearby residents and conduct additional engagement with local governments about proposed operations. As part of this, operators proposing drilling within 1,000 feet must meet with anyone within that area who asks.

The commission said the rules are more rigorous than any in the country but environmental groups weren’t happy, having sought at least a 1,000-foot buffer.

“The pathetically weak setback rules adopted … by the Hickenlooper administration will continue to enrich oil and gas companies at the expense of the public’s health and property values,´ said Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action.

Earlier this week, the commission also approved rules for monitoring and protection of groundwater.

Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, defending the rules.

“These are tough and far-reaching new rules that significantly reduce the effects of drilling for those living or working nearby while at the same time protecting the rights of mineral owners,” he said in a statement. “We believe these collectively amount to the strongest criteria for setbacks in the country, will hold industry to a new standard and represent a national model.”

Lepore acknowledge not everyone would be pleased.

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

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association issued a statement saying the proposed rules went too far.

“The current contentious dialogue about oil and gas development exposes a great disconnect between our reliance on oil and gas resources and our willingness to support its production,” Doug Flanders, COGA’s director of Policy and External Affairs, said in a statement.

The tentatively approved rules, Flanders said, will have the “unintended consequence of increased urban sprawl by forcing developers to waste land within development footprints.”

COGA lobbied for what it called a “more holistic approach” that would have more than doubled the statewide minimum setback distance from occupied structures from 150 to 350 feet and increased the minimum setback from high-occupancy facilities to 750 feet.

A final vote by the commission is set for next week after Wednesday’s informal vote in favor of the rules by a majority of the commissioners.


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