As the nine members of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission prepare for a high-stakes debate next week over new rules for drilling in the state, anti-fracking activists from Boulder County are crying foul over what they see as an already-flawed process.
Concern largely revolves around a proposal released earlier this week from commission staff members that would bump up the buffer between well sites and buildings from 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas to a flat 500 feet anywhere. Within 1,000 feet of a building, oil and gas operators would have to notify neighbors and employ "enhanced mitigation" measures to cut down on dust, noise, odor and lighting.
Also under the new rules, operators would have to have a hearing before the COGCC before proceeding with a well less than 1,000 feet away from a high-occupancy building, such as a school or hospital.
Rod Brueske, who lives in unincorporated Boulder County between Erie and Longmont, plans to testify at next week's hearings in Denver. On Wednesday, he said the new setbacks are insufficient to protect public health and aren't grounded in science.
"(The commission) is pulling distances out of the blue sky -- they're not using any science behind it," he said. "They're trying to pacify the public."
Brueske and others opposed to fracking -- or hydraulic fracturing -- claim that the controversial practice of injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground to free hard-to-access gas deposits can lead to water and air contamination near the wells.
Among the studies they point to is one released last year by the Colorado School of Public Health that determined that fracking may have contributed to acute and chronic health problems for those living within half a mile of natural gas drilling sites in Garfield County. Potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons like benzene, toluene and xylene were found in the air near wells, according to the three-year study.
Brueske said the state should impose a moratorium on oil and gas development until questions about its potential effects on human and environmental health are known.
April Beach, an Erie resident who says her family has suffered health problems as the result of emissions from a well site located just a few hundred feet from her home, said the oil and gas industry hasn't proven that its practices are safe.
"I don't think we should be having any setback discussions without first having health impact studies," Beach said. "How do we know what the good distance will be? We're really putting the cart before the horse."
'Pushing the industry'
COGCC Director Matt Lepore said Wednesday that the proposed rules aren't meant to deal so much with health concerns from drilling as the nuisance issues that arise.
"The things we get complaints about are odors, noise, traffic and dust," he said. "Our calculus was that a 500-foot setback was a good distance buffer, and that with the other mitigation measures, would go a good way to eliminating those annoyance factors."
Other measures being considered by the commission include requiring operators to use pit-less drilling, steel berms and underground liners and to employ strict dust and lighting controls. The new rules might also mandate that operators sample water wells near work sites both before and after drilling.
But there currently isn't the scientific basis to establish setback distances based solely on the potential threat of air emissions, Lepore said.
"We do believe the jury is still out on air emission impacts," he said.
Lepore said his agency had to perform a delicate balancing act over the last year in crafting the new rules, consulting with the industry, homeowners, local governments, farmers and ranchers, the environmental community, homebuilders, mineral owners, environmental health specialists and business leaders. No one is completely happy with the setbacks being proposed, he said, but his agency had to meet the needs of many stakeholders.
"This is pushing the industry hard while getting a higher level of comfort from the environmental community and the residential community," he said.
Doug Flanders, a spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, wrote in an email that the industry would prefer to see setbacks between wells and occupied structures be at 350 feet across the board.
"It is important to acknowledge the complexities of the rulemaking and its meaning to the diverse array of citizen stakeholders such as the farmer, the rancher, the mineral rights owner, the business owner and the many others that are involved," he wrote. "Our state has some of the more protective oil and gas regulations, including air emission regulations and resulting controls, in the country."
Cliff Willmeng, co-founder of anti-fracking group East Boulder County United, doesn't hold out much hope that next week's hearings will do much to ensure the health of those living near well pads.
"The setbacks themselves are political camouflage," he said. "They allow politicians to appear that they are taking public health into consideration."
He pointed to the blowout of a well in North Dakota last month that sent a geyser of oil, gas and salt water nearly 100 feet into the air, spreading contamination more than a mile downwind from the well site. A 500-foot buffer will be little protection against an accident like that, he said.
"It's a superficial approach," Willmeng said.
Contact Camera Staff Writer John Aguilar at 303-473-1389 or email@example.com.
Draft oil and gas rules
Setback of 500 feet between an occupied building and a well site.
Enhanced mitigation, notice and outreach requirements when drilling near residences, beginning at 1,000 feet.
No operations within 1,000 feet of high-occupancy buildings, such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals, without a hearing before the COGCC.
Use of pit-less drilling, steel berms and underground liners, strict dust and lighting controls and capture of gases to reduce odors and emissions.
Expanded notice and outreach efforts with nearby residents and additional engagement with local governments about proposed operations.
Sampling of water wells near drilling sites before and after drilling activities to ensure protection of drinking water aquifers.
If you go
What: COGCC oil and gas rule-making hearings
When: 9 a.m. each day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Where: Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place ___