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Boulder County commissioners Thursday night appeared to be open to the possibility of requiring even a greater minimum setback requirement for new oil and gas facilities that might be permitted in the future in unincorporated parts of the county.

The latest draft recommendation from county staff of updates to Boulder County’s current oil and gas regulations had proposed requiring that an oil and gas facility’s well pad be located at least 2,000 feet from an existing residential dwelling and any related residential land use, as well as a minimum of 2,000 feet from an educational facility such as a school and 2,000 feet from a licensed child care center.

Many of the speakers at a Nov. 9 Boulder County Planning Commmission hearing on the proposed regulatory changes, as well as many of the people who called in to comment during the commissioners’ Tuesday afternoon public hearing on the proposed regulations, argued for at least a 2,500-foot setback requirement.

A number of those public hearing participants also urged that setback requirements also be applied to the minimum distances between well pads and any “human-occupied” building that has any people inside it at any time of the day — and not just homes — as well as to county open space areas and trails.

On Thursday, Commissioners Deb Gardner, Elise Jones and Matt Jones directed the county staff to look into adding trails, trailheads and other areas where people are recreating, as well as workplaces such as offices and stores, to the proposed rules’ setback requirement.

That staff report, as well as the commissioners’ directive that staff consider making 2,500 feet the minimum setback, is expected to be considered when the commissioners resume their review of the package of updated well-permitting rules, requirements, restrictions and conditions on Dec. 10.

Commissioner Elise Jones said Thursday that she thought public health research indicates that setbacks of greater than 2,000 feet are appropriate.

“People do want a strong setback,” Commissioner Matt Jones said.

Gardner agreed, saying data in scientific literature the commissioners have read indicates that 2,000 feet is not sufficient to protect public health. She said adding a setback requirement for well pads’ distances from trails “makes a lot of sense” and that having one abut distances from office buildings “might make sense.”

Last month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved new state rules that include a statewide well setback requirement of 2,000 feet between new wells and schools and homes. Local governments, including municipalities and counties, can impose even stricter setback requirements, officials have said.

A number of people who called in to testify at the Nov. 9 Planning Commission hearing and Tuesday’s hearing on the proposed oil and gas regulation updates encouraged the county to ignore court rulings and to impose a ban on any future oil and gas development in unincorporated parts of the county.

Planning Commission members last month did not go along with calls for Boulder County to ignore Colorado court rulings that have overturned or blocked fracking bans and to proceed with enacting its own prohibition against future oil and gas development operations, specifically banning the process of hydraulic fracturing to free up deep underground oil and gas deposits before drilling begins.

Nor did any of the commissioners talk during Thursday’s meeting about proceeding with adoption of such a prohibition.

County staff, in a report to the commissioners before Tuesday’s hearing, wrote that it is “closely monitoring a lawsuit that examines local governments’ power to impose a fracking ban … for judicial guidance on this issue.”

On Nov. 1, Boulder County District Judge Judith LaBuda ruled against reinstatement of Longmont’s 2012 voter-approved ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas deposits within the city. Colorado Rising for Communities — which filed the lawsuit on behalf of two environmental activist groups, Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont and Food & Water Watch — has said it intends to appeal LaBuda’s ruling.

In the meantime, the county staff wrote that the county board “has directed staff to develop the strongest and most protective regulations possible to protect county residents and lands from the impacts of oil and gas development for use if necessary.”

The commissioners did suggest a variety of language changes, clarifications and additional requirements that county staff is expected to include in an updated draft that the county board will consider when it resumes its review of the proposed rules on Dec. 10.

Matt Jones, for example, said the county should get information about any previous “alleged violations” an applicant had in regards to state or local oil and gas regulations, and not just incidents or situations in which that company has actually been found in violation.

“We’re looking for a pattern of behavior about how good a company is,” Matt Jones said.

Gardner said the new regulations need to make the county aware in a timely fashion of any oil and gas developers’ or operators’ bankruptcies or insolvencies or transfers of ownership or other changes in those companies’ financial status.

Elise Jones said it’s important for the county to be assured that any required cleanup after spills or leaks “happens in a timely manner.” Matt Jones said he thought the county should check that with its own inspections and not just rely on the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s inspectors.

The three commissioners agreed that the proposed regulations should include stronger odor-control restrictions than what was contained in the draft measure, as well as rules about the hours of acceptable noise levels from well operations in order to allow its neighbors to sleep at night.

Boulder County’s current oil and gas development regulations have been in place since March 2017, and no applications for new oil and gas development have been submitted to the county since then. A county moratorium on accepting and processing new oil and gas development and seismic testing is in place through Dec. 31 while the proposed regulation updates are under review.

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