DENVER—They didn't come from the set of “Real Time With Bill Maher,” but the oil and gas industry will have to live with “new rules” in Colorado nonetheless. Only no one is laughing.
After three days of hearings at the Sheraton Downtown Denver Hotel, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission gave preliminary approval late Wednesday to expand the buffer between buildings and drilling operations to at least 500 feet. Two days earlier, the commissioners passed a new set of rules that will require oil and gas companies to do groundwater sampling before and after drilling.
Testimony at the hearings also led to yesterday's announcement that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will contract Colorado State University to conduct a $1.3 million study of emissions from oil and gas development along the Front Range. A similar emissions examination on the Western Slope deduced that homes within a half-mile of drilling were exposed to pollutants five times above the federal hazard index.
Representatives of the oil and gas industry called the new rules “excessive and unnecessary.”
Environmentalists and residents affected by drilling said they didn't go far enough. Critics lamented the new groundwater testing will be “weak” and they pointed out the system's loopholes, including one that exempts the largest oil and gas field in the state — the Wattenberg Field — from scientific scrutiny. They also walked away disappointed from the commission's 7-2 straw-poll approval of new setback standards.
“The setback rules ... are a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity to provide assurances to Coloradans concerned about drilling and fracking near their backyards and school playgrounds,” Conservation Colorado Executive Director Pete Maysmith said in a prepared statement.
Oil and gas exploration is a booming business in Colorado and other resource-rich states. The advent of hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, has made it easier for the industry to flush out energy from the earth's hard-to-reach underground places. But the process is energy-intensive in its own right, requiring copious quantities of water, along with sand and chemicals, that are injected into the ground. A growing body of research has concluded that fracking and its processes can trigger small earthquakes, and some residents who live near the operations complain of headaches, nosebleeds, fatigue and other health complications.
In addition, resource extraction is often performed around-the-clock and it can be noisy, smelly and a burden to neighboring streets that become clogged with 18-wheelers and flaggers directing traffic.
Before the hearings began, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Colorado Farm Bureau and other trade groups tried to prevent residents from testifying about their experiences with drilling in their neighborhoods because the industry groups contended that the residents were not medically or scientifically qualified.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission denied their request, opening the door for people like Dee Hoffmeister to testify about the hopelessness she felt when drilling operations moved in next door. In late 2005, she said rigs surrounded her home in Silt. The closest one was roughly 700 feet away.
There was a grey cloud of pollution above the drilling operations and strange odors permeated the neighborhood. One day she came home, she said, and the fumes knocked her unconscious after 15 minutes.
“For eight months, I had to live with my daughter and family in Glenwood Springs because every time I tried to return home I experienced severe headaches, back and leg pain, nausea, dizziness and other symptoms," Hoffmeister testified.
Battlement Mesa resident Bonnie Smeltzer, 85, kept diaries detailing the diesel and petroleum odors in her neighborhood. “I knew what I was smelling wasn't good for me. In the evening, you just couldn't keep your windows open because the air was so polluted,” the octogenarian told the commissioners, explaining that at one point she required a visit to the hospital emergency room to deal with nosebleeds and headaches.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has been criticized for being too cozy with industry, has developed what his administration touts as a “robust regulatory approach to oil and gas development.” Last year, his administration developed a national model for the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, put the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s water quality database on the Internet and took other measures to improve oversight and try to mitigate the impacts drilling can have on communities.
The state's new groundwater-testing program will make it only the third in the nation, and the first to require operators to take post-drilling water samples. The new setback rules, which are expected to receive final approval next week, would increase the buffer between drilling rigs and buildings from 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas to a uniform 500 feet statewide. Companies proposing to drill within 1,000 feet of an occupied structure would be required to use closed-loop drilling that eliminates pits, as well as adhere to new liner standards to protect against spills, and capture gases to reduce odors and emissions. Drilling operations proposed within 1,000 feet of schools, nursing homes, hospitals or other buildings that house large numbers of people would require a public hearing before the state's oil and gas commission.
Scott Campbell, an attorney representing Chevron USA, argued that the commission should not make rules based on “public clamor.” The new rules, he said, are arbitrary and not based on science.
“Arbitrary distances are simply going to beget a never-ending push for more arbitrary distances,” he said.
Campbell and Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said expanding the setback distances to 500 feet is “unacceptable” and they claimed neighborhood disturbances are only “short-term.”
“We think the current rules are working,” they both said at different points in the hearing.
Gary Wockner, who heads a grassroots group called Clean Water Action, described the increased buffer that the commission preliminary approved as “pathetically weak” and he said it “will continue to enrich oil and gas companies at the expense of the public's health and property values." He and many other Colorado residents are calling for a moratorium on fracking until more studies are done.
"The air quality study is good in itself, but in the absence of a statewide moratorium on drilling and fracking, the study will ensure that people are used as guinea pigs in a morbid statewide experiment with cancer-causing chemicals in our air and water,” he wrote in an email Wednesday night.
Others suggest minimum buffer zones of 1,000 feet for homes and 1,500 feet for schools and businesses.
Communities across the state are trying to catch up with the pace of industry and unanswered questions. Longmont voters have banned fracking in its city limits, which is being challenged. Boulder County has a moratorium on new drilling applications and commissioners there are scheduled to meet Jan. 24 to decide whether the moratorium should be extended. Similar discussions are playing out in other communities.
Fracking, meanwhile, has penetrated pop culture with Mick Jagger singing about “fracking deep for oil, but there’s nothing in the sump” in the Rolling Stones' latest hit “Doom and Gloom.” Matt Damon is also starring in a new film “Promised Land” that shines light on the darker aspects of fracking.
Whether Colorado's new rules will be worthy of a blockbuster or a horror flick remains to be seen.