If you have an oil and gas well in your neighborhood, you probably want the whole operation to be at a safe distance from your home. But it’s not that simple. The minimum allowed distance – called a setback – isn’t entirely based on math and science. It is usually a compromise between a variety of competing interests.
How Close Is Too Close?
“We used to be worried about asthma and cancers and ruining our water. Now we’re also worried about our houses blowing up,” said Barbara Mills-Bria, of Lakewood, Colo., during a recent public meeting with oil and gas regulators in Denver.
Northern Colorado communities are worried because in April, in Firestone, Colo., a home exploded, killing two people. A small pipeline, connected to a well, had been leaking odorless gas into the basement.
The stated intent of Colorado’s setback regulation is to “protect health, safety, and welfare.” But there are other factors at play. Any increase to the setback would restrict where companies could drill. So, operators have fought changes. In 2016, members of the oil and gas industry dumped over $15 million dollars into fighting a pair of ballot proposals. One of them would have increased the state setback to 2500 feet.
Those proposals went nowhere but smaller changes have gone through. Back in 2013, after months of contentious debate, members of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) voted to update the state’s setback regulations, increasing the existing distance of 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas to a uniform 500 feet statewide.
The setback from structures like above ground utilities and public roads was bumped up to 200 feet, from 150 feet. That earlier safety setback of 150 feet setback was a calculation of 1.5 times the height of a drilling rig, meant to protect homes and buildings if a rig toppled over.
The new 500 feet setback was a compromise among everyone from energy companies, to farmers, to home developers, to concerned residents. It addresses nuisances like noise and lighting issues. But, according to rule-making documents, there wasn’t enough data to address more serious problems like air emissions.
“There was not, in our opinion, sufficient, clear, undisputed scientific evidence to base a setback number on,” said Matt Lepore, Director of the COGCC. “Frankly, nothing would make me happier than (to have) somebody to tell me 1,007.5 feet is safe for everybody. That would be fantastic. That’s not going to happen. That was not the case in 2008, not the case 2012, that is not the case in 2017.”
But are current setbacks adequate? Researchers tried to answer that question in a 2016 paper, published in a journal called Environmental Health Perspectives. They looked at existing setbacks in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado ranging from a few hundred feet to over a thousand. The conclusion was that these distances are not always good enough to protect people from risks like air emissions and explosions.
On top of that, setbacks aren’t set in stone. In Colorado, operators can ask for permission to drill closer than 500 feet and homes can be built closer than that.
Inside Energy found that since 2013, on Colorado’s Northern Front Range, at least 220 new wells are within 500 feet of homes.
In the absence of state action, some towns are trying to pass their own setbacks. That is what Broomfield, Colo. is hoping to do before operations on a large oil and gas proposal get underway. Extraction Oil & Gas wants to put in 99 wells on four pads, close to a retirement community, and a proposed school and reservoir.
Broomfield Mayor Randy Ahrens is supporting a setback of a quarter mile, in part, because he witnessed several accidents at sites while working in the oilfield in the 1980s. When people ask Ahrens why safety is so important to him, he takes out his phone and shows them a picture of a site engulfed in flames – a well blowout.
“In Coleman, Texas. A unit lost control and the flames are about 150 foot high in the air,” Ahrens said.
Broomfield had actually considered banning new oil and gas development but voluntarily dropped those plans this spring, in part, thanks to fears of a potentially messy and expensive legal battle. Instead, the town formed a task force to try and deal with issues, like setbacks, directly.
Can People Coexist With Oil And Gas?
People and oil and gas development don’t always make good neighbors but this dynamic existed long before it came to Broomfield.
Matthew Fry is a geographer at the University of North Texas. “I even have a jogging route that I run,” he explained. “My wife will say ‘where did you run today?’ I’ll say I did the gas well route!” He runs past 7 or 8 gas wells along the way.
Fry’s research focuses on the intersection of oil and gas and communities. He says this kind of uncomfortably close development is not new. Think oil derricks lining beaches in Los Angeles or dotting Oklahoma City’s 1930s skyline.
But Fry explained that these days, drilling that happens near people is more suburban than urban.
Suburban drilling is growing, especially in Northern Colorado. Advances in drilling technology have allowed energy companies to access previously untapped reserves, some of which happen to run underneath towns north of Denver, like Broomfield, where Extraction Oil & Gas is hoping to drill 99 wells over the course of a year or so.
“I was shocked. I didn’t think it would happen. I didn’t think it would get to this point. I was shocked,” said Broomfield resident Becky Early at a recent public meeting on oil and gas.
Broomfield’s oil and gas task force has put thousands of hours into drafting new town rules, trying to have proposals finalized before drilling starts. They’ve gathered baseline data on air quality and analyzed regulations from other municipalities. The draft rules include recommendations like air and water monitoring, a larger minimum distance between homes and drilling and disclosure of all chemicals that could be brought on site
“If they understand the preeminence of health safety and welfare, they might have an easier time getting what they want,” said Susan-Phillips Speece, a member of the task force.
So what is Extraction doing about health, safety, and welfare?
“Things like electric rigs which we introduced to this basin. The sound walls that you see,” said Brian Cain, Extraction’s head of public affairs as he ticked through the various mitigation measures the company plans.
In addition to this new technology, Extraction says it will spend millions on landscaping to mask some of this infrastructure.
But these high and low tech measures don’t come free. In recent financial documents, Extraction warned that costs could go up thanks to all of these urban operations. That, coupled with the need to negotiate with the task force begs the question: why even bother with Broomfield?
“We don’t really get to choose where the natural resources are. Everything north of Denver is effectively part of the Denver Julesburg basin,” Cain explained.
More and more people are moving to areas in the DJ basin. That dynamic, in part, has forced Colorado to deal with certain impacts of drilling early on, sometimes before other states, by passing regulations related to issues like methane emissions and groundwater testing.
Now Governor John Hickenlooper is proposing even more regulations on the industry. In a press conference on Tuesday, August 22nd, he outlined seven new recommendations for the industry and its regulators:
- Mapping of all oil and gas pipelines and included in the “811, Call before you dig” program so homeowners can know the locations.
- Creation of a voluntary orphan well fund to plug old, abandoned wells
- Creation of a working group to improve oil and gas safety training
- New state laws to prohibit gas lines between homes and wells
- A peer review of all oil and gas regulations in the state, comparing them to regulations in other states, to see what new rules may be needed.
- Creation of a pilot program to detect methane leaks.
But for many communities, what the state has done thus far isn’t enough. Susan-Phillips Speece says Broomfield is taking the lead right now- hoping to become a model for other towns.
“We’re being watched by the state, we’re being watched nationally. If we can set the bar on how it can be done properly, I think we’ve done a good job,” said Susan-Phillips Speece.
But the job is far from done. Extraction recently weighed in saying that some of Broomfield’s draft recommendations are either in conflict with state law or would make drilling totally uneconomical. The City Council plans to make a decision on the draft next month.