When oil and gas drilling bumps up next to homes and communities, there are tensions. That has long been evident in Colorado, where a handful of cities have fought to limit the practice within their borders. Now, state regulators are considering some new rules which would would give local governments more input over oil and gas development. These recommendations come from a governor-appointed task force made up of citizens, elected leaders, and industry representatives.
Matt Lepore, the Director of Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, recently showed off a stuffed three-ring binder full of papers.
“These are all the pre-hearing statements that have been submitted by the parties,” he said, flipping through the pages containing comments by those who would be affected by the proposed rules.
The goal of Governor Hickenlooper’s Oil and Gas Task Force was to address concerns that drilling operations are being built too close to homes and that local governments don’t have enough say in that process. Matt Sura,a task force member and an attorney who represents local governments and individuals in disputes with oil and gas companies, thinks the group failed in that mission:
“It certainly doesn’t solve the problem,” said Sura.
There were nine total recommendations that came out of the task force, but only two require actual changes to state regulations on the siting of oil and gas facilities.
One requires companies to register in the communities where they operate so cities can keep track. The second requires companies to reach out to those communities and consult in good faith about finding the best placement for a large oil and gas facility, 90 days before the application.
If communities and the companies cannot reach a consensus, the project would go to a public hearing before the oil and gas commission. That is a significant change from the current process which merely requires an administrative approval of the company’s drilling permit.
But that new rule only applies to large facilities in dense areas: areas with either with 22 buildings surrounding a well or 11 buildings on one side. In the last couple of years, out of 1700 projects approved by the state, only 13 meet that criteria.
“More than 99 percent of oil and gas locations do not fit this very narrow limitation,” Sura said.
But a lot more projects are that close to a fewer number of homes, or a school or a park.
“All of those areas don’t receive any of this additional protection,” he said.
These recommendations also do not increase the distance drilling operations would have to be from homes, which Sura says was one of the reasons the task force was convened in the first place.
“Without addressing those core concerns we’re gonna be right back in the same place in the matter of a year or two,” he said.
Oil company Anadarko was also represented on the task force. They’re not interested in making these proposed rules any stronger than they are now.
“We at Anadarko have made it a priority to work with local communities as we plan development and we’re going to continue to do that wherever we operate,” said Public Affairs Manager Robin Olsen.
Producers feel they already gave ground to local governments through the task force process, and say the scope of the rules the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is considering represent a compromise all the stakeholders could live with.
“Undermining that process isn’t in the spirit of good faith,” Olsen said.
CLOSER TO BALANCE
Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore says he understands how communities staring down oil rigs may still be frustrated.
“They’re used to their neighborhood the way it is and they like their neighborhood the way it is,” he said.
But, the state constitution guarantees owners of mineral rights the authority to develop those minerals.
And Lepore said these rules are bringing the state closer to balancing concerns of citizens and oil and gas companies.
“The system works for most of the people most of the time,” Lepore said.
Yet that three-ring binder on Lepore’s desk is full of statements from people who still do not think the system is working. The Oil And Gas Commission will listen to two full days of hearings this week on the rules. They are likely to vote on adopting them on December 7th.