From the Denver Post 7/10/2018 by John Aguilar
More than 4 of every 5 acres of non-federal land in Colorado would be off-limits to new oil and gas drilling if voters this fall approve a proposed ballot measure that aims to significantly widen the distance wells have to be from occupied buildings and water sources, according to an analysis released this month by state energy regulators.
The report, which doesn’t directly address the initiative’s potential economic impact, comes at the fever pitch of a years long dispute over how and where companies access mineral rights. Supporters call the industry an engine of economic growth, whereas critics point to the fading gap between extraction sites and fast-expanding neighborhoods.
Initiative 97 would establish the minimum setback of oil and gas wells to 2,500 feet — from the current 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools. Industry advocates warn that would decimate the state’s oil and gas sector, which was cited in a recent Colorado Petroleum Council study for having generated nearly 233,000 jobs in Colorado and contributed more than $31 billion to the state’s economy.
“A 2,500-foot setback would shut down Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry and lead to a massive layoff of over 100,000 local jobs,” Scott Prestidge, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said Monday. “We hope Coloradans read before they sign any petition that would place this dangerous measure on the ballot.”
Backers of Initiative 97 are gathering signatures to put it on the November ballot. They need to submit to the Secretary of State’s Office just over 98,000 valid signatures from voters by Aug. 6.
“Toxic, industrial and dangerous activity like fracking doesn’t belong in our neighborhoods, near our kids’ schools or near our water supplies,” said Micah Parkin, who sits on the board of Colorado Rising, a fracking watchdog group promoting the measure. “These are really common-sense regulations.”
She cited the explosion last year that killed two men and destroyed a home in Firestone as just the most visible illustration of the danger of locating oil and gas operations close to neighborhoods. The incident was blamed on a leaky flowline from a well that hadn’t been capped properly.
In the eight months following that tragedy, there were at least a dozen explosions and fires associated with industry pipelines along the Front Range, a Denver Post investigation found.
Parkin said today’s setbacks aren’t nearly enough, especially when several studies have found that people living near oil and gas operations are at higher risk of developing health problems, including cancer. One Princeton University-led study released last year concluded that babies born within a half-mile of a fracking site were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weights, leaving them at greater risk of infant mortality, asthma and lower test scores.
But some of the studies surrounding the toxicity of oil and gas operations have been questioned, not just by the industry but also by the head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who earlier this year criticized the conclusions of a University of Colorado study linking oil and gas well proximity to childhood leukemia.
Oil and gas extraction has moved closer to surging neighborhoods in the state, particularly on the metro area’s northern and eastern periphery, where the Wattenberg Gas Field has proven to be one of the more productive in the country.
And in the last year, escalating prices for oil (it closed at $74 a barrel Monday, compared to around $44 a year ago) have prodded the industry to apply for more well permits. Data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission show that output never crested above 10.4 million barrels a month in Colorado in 2016, while in the first three months of this year, the monthly yield has ranged between 11.8 million and 13.2 million barrels.
This month’s COGCC report on the potential effects of Initiative 97 concluded that a 2,500-foot buffer between new wells and occupied buildings and other “vulnerable areas,” like waterways, would eliminate 94 percent of non-federal land available for drilling in Colorado’s top five oil-and-gas-producing counties combined.
Weld County, by far the state’s most productive oil and gas area, would see 85 percent of its non-federal land knocked offline for new oil and gas activity, should the proposed setbacks take effect, the analysis concluded.
The agency’s report did not speculate on the initiative’s economic impact, but CU conducted a study two years ago on that topic when a similar measure was being proposed for the ballot. That measure was disqualified for lack of valid signatures.
The CU study concluded that a 2,500-foot buffer for new oil and gas wells would result in a $7.1 billion hit to Colorado’s gross domestic product in the first five years the setbacks are in place, with 54,000 fewer jobs being generated.
Parkin said while it is important to keep Colorado’s economy humming, “we have to prioritize public safety and health risks first.” She said extraction technology has made such advances in recent years — the practice of horizontal drilling allows energy companies to reach minerals from several miles away — that the setbacks being proposed are not as onerous as the industry is maintaining.
“They can site their wells further away and not right in the middle of neighborhoods and still get access to their resources,” she said.
But Peter Moore, head of pro-drilling coalition Vital for Colorado, countered that his side is ready to fight the effort to put more room between homes, schools and fracking sites.
“The groups behind Initiative 97 want to drive oil and natural gas development out of Colorado, plain and simple,” he said. “The new analysis shows the Colorado energy sector would be devastated by this ballot measure – and the business community refuses to let that happen.”