Loophole in state law could bypass Longmont’s new oil and gas regs

Joel Dyer | Boulder Weekly

On July 17, Longmont City Council finally took the bold step of passing new oil and gas regulations that are actually stricter than current state laws. The Longmont ordinance requires a minimum of 750-foot setbacks from occupied structures, compared with the state’s 350-foot requirement, and Longmont’s new regs also prohibit drilling in residential areas of the city.

It all sounds good, but a recently discovered loophole in state laws may severely hinder any benefits that might have come from the city’s new rules.

During Tuesday’s spirited debate among the members of council, those opposed to the section of the ordinance that prevents drilling in residential areas — more particularly councilmembers Bonnie Finley, Katie Witt and Gabe Santos — repeatedly expressed their belief that the residential prohibition section of the ordinance was unnecessary because no company was ever going to be drilling in residential areas in Longmont. This view stemmed from the belief that the density of residential areas is such that no company could meet even the state’s existing setback requirements in order to drill a well.

It makes sense, except for one thing. It’s completely wrong, because the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) has a loophole that trumps all setback requirements.

This loophole was recently unearthed by the research of Shane Davis, at large executive committee member and information and research manager for the Colorado chapter of Sierra Club, and was presented before a joint city council study session in Loveland on June 12.

Over the course of a year-long investigation into why some wells were seemingly drilled in violation of state law — more than 4,000 active wells in Colorado are closer to a structure than the state’s required 350-foot setback — Davis found that the COGCC’s setback laws don’t apply to previously existing wells, including those that have been abandoned over time.

This is a very significant discovery, considering that in Boulder County alone there are 245 active wells and 528 inactive wells. As shown on a well history map on the opposite page, there are 72 active and inactive wells just in and around Longmont. Some are located right in the heart of subdivisions, while others are in the middle of golf courses.

Ironic, considering that councilmember Finley repeatedly, and apparently incorrectly, assured concerned citizens on Tuesday night that no one would ever be drilling on the city’s golf courses. They can if they want.

As this loophole currently exists, drilling could literally and legally take place in the backyards of Longmont residents. In Firestone, just a stone’s throw from Longmont to the east, production platforms currently exist as close as 48 feet to some homes.

The only way to control this loophole, outside of eliminating it by way of legislation at the state or national level, is for cities and counties to create setbacks from abandoned and producing wells for developers. This does not require approval from the state.

Unfortunately, in many instances, development has already run its course over the tops of the old wells, and for now, it’s up to the oil and gas industry to decide if it wants to drill in residential areas.

(Right click, view image to enlarge map)

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