The 2020 battle over oil and gas setbacks just started

Colorado Rising has proposed ballot measures to increase setbacks and to require companies to front clean-up money before obtaining permits

Laurie Anderson, a city councilwoman from Broomfield, was on her porch for a news conference on Jan. 7, 2020 to show support for a ballot measure to increase setbacks between oil and gas wells and homes. (Photo by John Herrick)

On Tuesday morning, Laurie Anderson, a 46-year-old from Broomfield, watched a white tanker truck and another carrying sand for hydraulic fracturing travel past a newly framed housing development to an oil and gas drilling site less than a mile from her home. 

Anderson, who moved into the home on Colorado’s eastern plains just north of Denver five years ago, said she planned to settle in with her husband and raise her five kids. That changed three years ago after learning Extraction Oil and Gas wanted to drill 19 wells within sight of her home. The company began drilling in July, she said, and she can see two towering cranes from her kitchen window. 

“When I found out they were going to drill back there,” she said, “that changed everything.” 

In 2018, she helped collect signatures for Proposition 112, an oil and gas setbacks measure that failed to pass that same year. Anderson ran for Broomfield City Council in 2019 on an anti-drilling platform and won. Now, the councilwoman is helping advocates try for the fourth time to pass a ballot measure that would increase buffers between wells and homes. 

Colorado Rising, a grassroots anti-fracking group, hosted a news conference at her home on Tuesday to announce it has filed with the secretary of state six ballot measures, five of which would increase setbacks between drilling rigs and homes up from the baseline 500 feet for homes and 1,000 feet for schools. 

One of the setback measures would increase setbacks to 2,500 feet between drilling rigs and homes, schools, open space, superfund sites, and waterways — the same distance sought in Prop. 112, also known as Initiative 97. According to an analysis by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry, a setback of that distance would have the effect of outlawing oil and gas drilling in more than half the state. The four other setback measures are incrementally less restrictive, some of which give landowners the right to waive the setback requirements. Advocates are also pushing a ballot measure that would more than double the maximum bond amount that companies have to front for potential reclamation costs before they can receive a permit.

Colorado Rising hasn’t settled on any specific setbacks ballot measure yet. The group filed multiple options in order meet a title board deadline so it can begin collecting signatures sooner. Whichever it chooses is likely to be at the center of one of the fiercest fights of 2020 over oil and gas development. 

“It’s a big task. But we feel that it is necessary,” said Anne Lee Foster, the communications director for Colorado Rising. “We feel that we have continued to learn and continued to grow. And we continue to build people power to take on this fight again.” 

Protect Colorado, an industry-backed political expenditure committee, helped to squash setback attempts in 2014, 2016 and 2018. In 2018, the industry outspent advocates nearly 40-1, spending about $40 million to help defeat Prop. 112, which failed 45% to 55%. Protect Colorado also backed a separate ballot measure, Amendment 74, that would have required the state or local governments to compensate mineral owners for any lost wealth due to oil and gas regulations. Many Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis and former Gov. John Hickenlooper, opposed Prop. 112. 

Industry groups have already weighed in on this year’s efforts. 

“This is déjà vu all over again. Last election, Coloradans decisively defeated an energy industry ban that would have shredded private property rights and put working families on the unemployment line,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. 

“The existing framework set forth by the various state agencies regulating our industry is intended to protect public health, safety, welfare and the environment, and it has proven to be successful for many years,” said Lynn Granger, executive director for the Colorado Petroleum Council.

Anne Lee Foster, of Colorado Rising, announced a ballot measure to increase setbacks between oil and gas wells and homes on Jan. 7, 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

The renewed campaign to seek greater setbacks comes in the wake of Senate Bill 181, which required state regulators to update rules for oil and gas operations. And, throughout the year, the industry has seen regulations tighten for the mapping and removal of flow lines and requirements for air emissions monitoring. Meanwhile, across the Front Range, local governments are using their new powers under Senate Bill 181 to enact their own regulations. Advocates on Tuesday delivered a petition to Boulder County commissioners calling on them to go so far as banning fracking. 

Advocates say they are pushing again for larger buffers between drilling operations and neighborhoods for public health reasons. An October 2019 study, commissioned by the state, that found people who live as far as 2,000 feet from a well can be exposed to concentrations of toxic chemicals high enough to cause nose bleeds, headaches, nausea and respiratory problems. 

Industry groups have downplayed the findings, pointing out that the report did not address long-term health impacts, like cancer. The potential health impacts were also the result of worst-case scenario conditions when emissions are highest and the wind direction is right. 

Even so, residents in the region for years have been filing complaints to the state reporting the very symptoms in the report. Mackenzie Carignan, a 42-year-old from Broomfield who lives one mile from a drilling site, told reporters at Tuesday’s press conference that she remembers when a petroleum-like odor wafted into her house one night and caused her eyes and throat to burn. She said she called the fire department. 

“We felt for sure there was a burning dumpster outside,” Carignan told reporters.  

A 19-well pad operated by Extraction Oil and Gas in Broomfield seen through the window of the home of Laurie Anderson, a city councilwoman from Broomfield. On Jan. 7, 2020, advocates announced a ballot measure to increase setbacks between oil and gas wells and homes. (Photo by John Herrick)

Another proposed ballot measure would increase the bonding requirement for new wells so that companies would have to put up $270,000 per well before obtaining a permit. Advocates base this price on a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office that estimated the cost to reclaim an abandoned well. 

According to state oil and gas regulations, companies are required to provide $10,000 per well for wells less than 3,000 feet deep and $20,000 per well for wells greater than or equal to 3,000 feet in total measured depth. The companies can also put up a statewide bond of $60,000 to cover up to 100 wells or front $100,000 for unlimited wells. 

As of July 2019, the state has identified at least 275 abandoned wells, which can leak planet-warming methane into the atmosphere. To help ensure companies — and not taxpayers — reclaim these sites, Colorado lawmakers included a provision in Senate Bill 181 to required the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to write new rules for the financial assurances and bonds that companies have to provide when they receive drilling permits. That rulemaking is expected by late summer 2020. 

But advocates say they are worried the COGCC won’t go far enough with the regulations. 

“We don’t have a lot of faith in the politicians and the regulators,” Colorado Rising’s Foster said. 

Colorado Rising will have to gather at least 124,632 — 5% of the 2018 general election voter turnout — to qualify the measures for the ballot.