A thousand feet is not enough

December 19, 2018

Colorado, oil & gas industry

Drilling rig near Bella Romero Academy in Weld County

On Tuesday, the COGCC unanimously approved 1,000-foot setbacks from the boundary of school property, including childcare centers. Current setback rules required oil & gas facilities be located 1,000 feet from school buildings, and did not include childcare centers.

According to the Final Draft Proposal: “SCHOOL FACILITY means any discrete facility or area, whether indoor or outdoor, associated with a school, that students use commonly as part of their curriculum or extracurricular activities. A school facility is either adjacent to or owned by the school or school governing body, and the school or school governing body has the legal right to use the school facility at its discretion. The definition includes Future School Facility.”

Commissioner Howard Boigon praised the ruling, stating: “This may be the first time in the history of the commission that this group of esteemed counsel are all sitting at the same table and advocating for the same language.”

Indeed stakeholders from across the state argued for school setbacks including: Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Boulder County, Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners, Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Colorado Petroleum Council, Conservation Colorado, Garfield County, the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC), the Adams 12 Five Star Schools and 27J School District, and the Colorado Association of School Boards.

COGCC Chair John Benton said the groups came together to “create an epic moment in rulemaking.”

Notably missing from the aforementioned stakeholders are Colorado Rising and 350 Colorado, the groups behind Proposition #112, which would have required 2,500-foot setbacks between drilling and all occupied structures (homes, schools, hospitals, retirement homes, offices, childcare centers, etc.) and would have also applied to waterways.

The final tally on Prop 112 was:
Yes: 44.8% (1,116,738)
No: 55.12% (1,311,546)

During the hearing, citizens held signs reminding the commissioners that more than one million voters favored greater setbacks than 1,000 feet.

Colorado Rising’s Heidi Henkel testified at the hearing that 1,000 feet was not enough. She told the commissioners, “I thought after the 112 proposition that we would be able to relax but we haven’t. Nervousness is never higher. If what I’m about to say doesn’t change the trajectory of this decision making then our work on a ballot initiative in 2020 will.”

Later on Facebook, Henkel posted: “This isn’t a total ‘collaboration’ … this is us banging our heads against the wall for years, demanding for some sort of awakening from oil and gas. You wonder why we had a ballot measure this year.”

Henkel’s right of course. The industry has never been more eager to pass milquetoast regulations than when faced with 1,116,738 voters. Public pressure has reached a boiling point. The industry knows next time they will lose.

The problem is there’s always a catch. In this case, the COGCC allowed for a variance to the school setbacks rules in either of these situations:

  1. The school’s governing body may consult with the oil & gas company and agree to allow a closer setback, which would then require COGCC approval.
  2. A company can request a hearing to waive the setback if that distance is “technically infeasible or economically impracticable,” as long as sufficient measures are in place to protect health and safety.

State Sen. Matt Jones opposed the “economically impracticable” language and called the rulemaking process “broken.”

“Why in the heck is economics in this decision?” Jones asked. “This is a health issue for children. I agree with the speaker who said before, this is a very small ask. And it takes this much work to change it. And it just shows how the system’s broken.”

“I generally support this rule change,” Jones said. But he criticized the COGCC for allowing the oil and gas industry the upper hand in negotiations. “It’s almost like it’s a football game. And oil and gas gets to play offense and everyone else has to play defense the whole time. It’s just not right the way it’s set up.”

In spite of the expectation that the COGCC would pass the 1,000-foot school setback rules, Colorado Rising announced last week that they are forming an exploratory committee to begin the process of running a ballot initiative in the 2020 election cycle. The exact form the initiative will take has yet to be determined but the group plans to organize another campaign to address the dangers of oil and gas extraction if state leaders should fail to take effective action to protect residents from neighborhood drilling.

Anne Foster of Colorado Rising said, “We don’t expect the efforts at the legislature to fully address the concerns of Coloradans when it comes to dangerous oil and gas near our homes and its overall impact on our quality of life, so we will now begin the process of running another initiative to keep the pressure on and ensure our communities get the protections they deserve.”

The group is also calling for a moratorium on permitting and approval to allow time for the new legislative session to create laws based on peer-reviewed health impact studies. The full list of demands is outlined in this petition.

In October and November alone, the COGCC has approved 1,424 new drilling permits and has 6,598 drilling permits pending approval.

Foster said, “In light of the recent onslaught of permits by the industry and the over 1.1 million Coloradans that support oil and gas reform, we implore Governor-elect Polis to put a moratorium on permitting in place to allow for new protections to be made, based on peer-review science, to address the concerns of impacted communities.”

Sources and additional information:

COGCC: Final Draft School Setbacks Rules

School Setback Rule An ‘Epic’ Collaboration Between Industry, Schools, And Conservation Groups

Setbacks for drilling increased for schools

Colorado regulatory panel changes oil and gas school setback requirement

Colorado schools threatened by oil and gas development

Colorado Rising to take another shot at an oil and gas ballot initiative
Drilling setback proposal refueled

Petition to Polis – Address Climate Change & Protect Our Communities

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One Comment on “A thousand feet is not enough”

  1. Leslie A Robinson Says:

    I think it took something like 30 years to move the setbacks from 150 ft to 350 ft; then another five years to increase it to 500 ft in LUMA situations. The Task Force set 1000 ft setbacks from school buildings and it took three years to increase it to 1000 ft from school property lines. O&G politics take a long time — because we are dealing with the most powerful and rich industry in the world — but at least we’re moving Colorado ahead with stronger regulations while some states and the feds are going backwards. Of course there should be longer setbacks, and citizen groups like WCA and LOGIC are not appeased with the status quo — we’ll continue to work for and support efforts to increase setbacks. In the meantime, allow us one victory loop before we move on to other O&G regulations to improve. Note: I am chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, part of WCA and also serve on the LOGIC board.

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