State rep on school setbacks: ‘Good enough for pot shops, good enough for fracking’

State Representative Matt Jones on Thursday linked the highly controversial oil and gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to the recent federal government crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries within 1,000 feet of schools in Colorado.

“If three football fields from a school is good enough for medical marijuana, it’s good enough for oil and gas fracking,” Jones told the Colorado Independent, referring to setbacks between oil and gas rigs and homes, schools and other public buildings.

Current state law requires that oil and gas rigs are set back at least 350 feet away from homes and public buildings in urban areas and 150 feet away in rural areas. It also requires medical marijuana dispensaries to be 1,000 feet from schools, and liquor stories to be 500 feet away.

U.S. Attorney John Walsh last week sent letters to 23 medical marijuana dispensaries in Colorado that are within 1,000 feet of schools, telling them to shut down by Feb. 27 or face criminal prosecution. He cited concern for the health of nearby school children.

The issue of setbacks from oil and gas drilling has been unresolved since the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) punted on it during an 18-month revision of state drilling regulations in 2007 and 2008. Conservation and citizen activist groups have been calling for a new rulemaking on the issue ever since.

A middle school in Longmont has become the poster child in the fight for expanded setbacks. Testing of a natural gas well 350 feet from the school in 2006 and 2009 found levels of benzene much higher than state standards.

Fracking — the process of injecting water, sand and chemicals into oil and gas wells to free up more hydrocarbons — has come under increased scrutiny by Colorado counties and municipalities as drilling takes off in the Niobrara Shale formation beneath the state’s Front Range. Halliburton on Thursday announced it’s building a $20 million sand facility in Windsor to support fracking operations in the area.

State Rep. Matt Johes, D-Louisville
Jones says he’ll introduce a bill in the state House soon aimed at giving Colorado counties and municipalities more control over drilling operations, which are predominantly regulated by the state. Governor John Hickenlooper and both the speaker of the House and the Senate majority leader oppose such a bill.

Jones is undaunted, telling radio talk show host David Sirota on Thursday that he knows the bill faces an uphill battle but that he expects to get a fair hearing. Jones also said Hickenlooper’s concern about a “patchwork” of regulations is unfounded.

“That horse has left the barn,” Jones said. “If you want to not have a patchwork, you need to look at subdivision home building, cement plants, power plants. All of that is regulated by local governments. Local governments do land-use control all the time. This fits into that.”

Fracking, Jones added, is just another industrial land use that local governments should have more control over.

“With fracking, when they come in repeatedly to re-frack a well, it’s changed the activity from just simply drilling a well to a repeated activity, and it’s more of an industrial activity now,” Jones said.

Both Gunnison and La Plata counties have had varied degrees of success regulating oil and gas drilling, implementing local rules that have been backed up by court decisions. However, the state contends it has a legislative mandate to regulate oil and gas drilling, with its rules preempting most local regulations.

Colorado oil and gas industry officials have expressed nervousness about increased local oversight. State oil and gas officials could not be reached for comment.

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