Stricter oil/gas regulations may hinge on setbacks

Anti-fracking protest in Boulder
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

As Boulder County officials mull tougher regulations on oil and gas operations such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a key component will be setbacks, the minimum distance between wells and sensitive areas.


And in the new land use code that the county commissioners began considering this week, much will hinge on whether companies will voluntarily embrace significant setbacks and stringent air and water monitoring in exchange for an expedited approval process for their permits.

The proposed code changes create two avenues for oil and gas companies to pursue, county staff told the commissioners at a Nov. 13 public hearing.

The first is an expedited process that will be fast-tracked but involves adhering to stricter guidelines than state or federal rules require, and the second is a slower, standard process in which each permit will be considered subjectively on a case-by-case basis.

In the expedited process, the Boulder County Planning Commission recommended requiring a 1,000-foot setback from occupied structures, while county staff recommended a 500-foot setback. The commissioners are expected to make a decision on that question and the rest of the code changes on Dec. 13, after a second public hearing on Dec. 4.

When Commissioner Will Toor asked why the staff recommended a less-stringent distance, special counsel Jeff Robbins, who was hired to consult on the project, explained that the 1,000-foot setback might scare companies away from choosing the expedited process, the avenue that is likely preferable for monitoring environmental effects, among other things.

He noted that Encana has submitted a letter with more than 40 pages of concerns about the new regulations, and the other oil/gas company with a major local presence, Noble Energy, submitted a similar document. Among the companies’ many concerns are the proposed setbacks, Robbins said, and they are even balking at the shorter 500-foot distance.

Stele Ely of Boulder | Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Robbins explained that the county has to calibrate a balance between protecting public health and safety while still making the setback feasible for operators. He said staff believe the shorter setback is worth it, considering the host of objective, delineated standards that companies will have to meet in other areas, like air and water quality monitoring, if they opt for the expedited process. Alternatively, Robbins said, if operators are deterred from the expedited process and choose the standard process, the county will have to create more flexible environmental monitoring plans suited to each particular situation, and companies will only be required to meet less-stringent state and federal setbacks.

Commissioner Cindy Domenico asked Mike Matheson, another external consultant hired for the project, whether the county would really be asking too much of industry to conform to the new land use code, as Encana and Noble claim.

Matheson replied that many operators “are doing all of these things now,” and that the county is asking for “a very high level of compliance, but it can be done and is being done.”

He added, “Is it cheap? Is it easy? No. It will cost the operators money.”

Several citizens who spoke during the public hearing called for an extension of the county’s moratorium on new oil/gas permits and asked the commissioners to intervene on behalf of Longmont as that city gets sued by the state for its new oil/gas regulations.

Commissioner Will Toor told BW that Longmont officials have indicated to county attorneys that there isn’t much interest in having the county intervene, and that doing so could have negative, binding consequences if Longmont loses.

“We would be bound by the results,” Toor says, adding that, with no offense intended to Longmont, “is that necessarily the case we want to be bound by?”

As for extending the moratorium, he says it is important to approve the county’s new code before the state makes further changes to oil/gas regulation, both to get the new code on the books and to hopefully affect the direction the state takes.