Both sides irked by state panel’s approval of fracking setback rule

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DENVER — Wrapping up three days of hearings, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission gave initial approval to a new rule that will force oil and gas drilling rigs to be at least 500 feet away from people’s homes or offices.

The COGCC heralded the new standard on “setbacks” as “more rigorous than any in the country.”

Environmentalists, who spent three days fighting to increase the setback limit to 1,000 feet, decried the decision and the new rule.

“The pathetically weak setback rules adopted today 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.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist, has taken heat from environmentalists for siding with the oil and gas industry on similar matters surrounding the regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a process now enabling energy companies to tap vast natural gas deposits deep beneath the surface that have previously been too difficult to excavate.

After the administration released the proposals approved this week on New Years Eve day, a surprise to many stakeholders, environmental advocates who have long stood by Hickenlooper politically were blunt in their criticism.

“Gov. Hickenlooper and his administration have failed in their responsibility to protect the public health, safety, and environment of Coloradans,” said Pete Maysmith, the director of Conservation Colorado.

“As the march of increased drilling continues in Colorado, the public expects and deserves strong safeguards. We are disappointed that Gov. Hickenlooper has failed to deliver these safeguards.”

With much of the natural gas development now happening on the Niobrara Shale which stretches across northeast Colorado, an area that could yield 3.6 billion barrels, landowners and developers — notably Pat Hamill, the CEO of Oakwood Homes who hosted a fundraiser for Hickenlooper Tuesday night — are concerned about the impact on future projects in the area.

The COGCC, which approved rules last year for additional disclosure of the chemicals contained in the fracking fluids shot deep into the ground to loosen mineral deposits for excavation, believes that the new rule concerning setbacks, and another concerning groundwater testing that was approved Monday, strike an appropriate balance.

“These are some of the most complex issues that this Commission has faced, and we
deeply appreciate the input from so many sincere participants,” said COGCC Director Matt Lepore.

“We understand that these rules do not leave any one group of interests completely satisfied. 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, which represents the interests of the industry, is far from satisfied.

The group had asked for a rule that would require a setback of 350 feet.

“This new proposed setback rule will ultimately result in more interference with surface use and development,” said COGA’s spokesman, Doug Flanders.

“We do not believe the new proposed setback rule properly acknowledges the complexities and the impacts to the diverse array of citizen stakeholders such as the farmer, the rancher, mineral rights owner, business owner, home developers, and the many others that are directly involved,” he continued.

“Setbacks are much more than just a simple measurement of distance, but encompass the notice, engagement, and mitigation measures involved in responsible oil and gas development.”