How close is too close for a natural-gas well?

La Plata County setback regulation tougher than state’s

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission released draft language for statewide setbacks and groundwater sampling regulations this week, but the new standards may not do much to change how many energy companies in La Plata County operate.

That’s because setback and groundwater sampling regulations that already apply to a majority of operators in La Plata County are identical or stricter than the state’s proposed regulations.

The state commission’s draft regulations would mandate a 350-foot setback rule for all new natural-gas and oil facilities and would establish statewide groundwater sampling and monitoring mandates.

But La Plata County code already requires a 450-foot setback between wellheads and existing residential structures. When it comes to water sampling regulations for coal-bed methane wells, the new draft regulations incorporate the same requirements that operators in the Ignacio-Blanco Field south of Durango have been operating under since 2000. Coal-bed methane wells account for two thirds of wells in the county.

The state regulatory agency’s new water-sampling rules would apply only to conventional wells and shale wells drilled in La Plata County, though the county has yet to see any major shale development, said Karen Spray, the agency’s southwest environmental protection specialist.

A coalition of conservation groups came out in opposition to the 350-foot setback, arguing it doesn’t adequately protect public health. The conservation groups, including San Juan Citizens Alliance, argued the proposed standard puts Coloradans’ health and welfare at risk and advocated for a 1,000-foot setback.

Josh Joswick, with San Juan Citizens Alliance, accused the regulatory agency of ignoring potential public-health effects of natural-gas and oil development.

He referred to studies produced in Garfield County that detail the potential increase in health risks from natural-gas and oil production.

The most recent study, a “Health Impact Assessment” of a proposed fracking facility in Garfield County by the University of Colorado School of Public Health, warned that air contaminants released from natural-gas and oil facilities may be “high enough to cause short-term and long-term disease” in nearby populations. The report said residents who live within a half mile of a well pad are more likely to experience health effects than residents farther away.

A 1,000-foot setback rule would lessen the impact of energy development on residents, Joswick said. The conservation groups’ proposed setback distance takes into account studies that examined dispersion rates of toxic airborne chemicals, said Matt Sura, a Denver-based attorney representing one of the groups.

The current draft regulation is disappointing in that it represents no change from the status quo for most Coloradans, Sura said. Currently, natural-gas and oil facilities must be 350 feet away from buildings in high-density areas and 150 feet away from buildings in all other areas.

Sura also warned that La Plata County’s setback regulations could be challenged.

Matthew Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said a future challenge isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

“Up to this point, the commission has chosen not to take issue with La Plata County’s regulations,” Lepore said. “But the commission could take issue with La Plata County’s regulations before or after the new regulations are introduced.”

The state commission’s draft language is open for public comment and is available on the agency’s website. The rules will be heard Nov. 14 by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

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