Tough drilling regs old hat here

County already requires many of the measures for reducing impact on residents

A week after state regulators enacted new setback rules for gas and oil development near populated areas, local officials are still parsing out what those changes will mean for operators here.

Last Monday, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted 8 to 1 to approve setback regulations that require new gas and oil wells and related facilities to be built 500 feet from buildings and 1,000 feet from high-occupancy facilities such as schools, nursing homes and prisons.

The rules also establish measures requiring gas and oil facilities that do locate within 1,000 feet of a building unit to mitigate noise, emissions, spill potential and traffic. They also require operators to get waivers from residents before drilling within 1,000 feet from more densely populated areas.

Todd Weaver, a deputy county attorney, said the new rules are said to be among the country’s toughest, but they aren’t a major shift for La Plata County because many of the measures, such as locating multiple wells on one pad, are already required or strongly recommended here.

The state’s new 500-foot setback also is just 50 feet farther than the 450-foot setback rule in La Plata County’s Land Use Code.

Previous statewide setback rules required gas and oil facilities to locate more than 150 feet from a building and more than 350 from high-density neighborhoods.

Several other regulations included in the COGCC’s rules are best practices that gas and oil companies have adopted on their own, Weaver and Courtney Roseberry, a natural-resource planner with the county, said.

For example, many operators already have closed-loop systems that funnel liquids into closed containers rather than evaporation pits and some have switched to green completions that capture natural gas instead of burning what escapes during the well-completion process. Both practices are required of operators that build a well or other facility within 1,000 feet of a building, according to the gas and oil commission’s new rules.

The regulations apply only to new well activity or certain expansion construction, both of which are at a low in the county.

“Unless drilling picks up here, we won’t see a lot of impact,” Weaver said.

Environmental groups had pushed for greater setbacks than those approved by the gas and oil commission.

“(The new rules) expanded setbacks a little bit, but the number of exemptions or escape routes, especially for rural areas hasn’t changed (the situation) much,” said Bruce Baizel, energy program director at Earthworks, a nonprofit that had party status in the gas and oil commission hearing.

The new regulations will take effect this summer, but Roseberry and Weaver said they are waiting to propose any changes to the county’s code until the final wording of the regulations is released. There’s also a possibility that legislators will pass statutory regulations that will override the COGCC’s rulemaking, the county staff members said.