Future oil and gas well pads in unincorporated parts of Boulder County would generally have to be set back at least 2,500 feet from any residential dwelling, school or licensed child care facility, under updated oil and gas development regulations county commissioners unanimously voted to approve Thursday.
That 2,500-setback requirement would also generally apply to the distances well pads would be allowed to be situated from work places in light industrial, general industrial, commercial, business and transitional zoning districts, under the new regulations.
Setbacks also would be required from public recreational trails and trailheads owned by the county or any city or town within the county.
In no case could the setbacks be smaller than a minimum of 2,000 feet, Kim Sanchez, deputy director of Boulder County’s Community Planning and Permitting Department, told the commissioners.
And, depending on the wells’ locations and other factors spelled out in the regulations, the Board of County Commissioners could require even greater setbacks than 2,500 feet, Sanchez said.
The new setback requirements are one aspect of a comprehensive set of updates to Boulder County’s well-permitting rules, requirements, restrictions and conditions that have been in place since March 2017. A county moratorium on accepting and processing new oil and gas development and seismic testing is in place through Dec. 31 while the updated regulations were under review.
Commissioners are scheduled to consider formal adoption of the comprehensive package of updated regulations on Tuesday, when they vote on a resolution that’s expected to be on the agenda for the board’s business meeting that day.
If, as expected, the board approves that resolution, the updated regulations would take effect immediately, county staff said Thursday night. Staff said the full text of the new regulations was expected to be posted on Boulder County’s Oil and Gas Development website, tinyurl.com/yd6rhjja, sometime Friday.
Commissioner Elise Jones said the issue of providing local health and safety protections from potentially negative impacts of oil and gas exploration and production “is of great importance to Boulder County,” its residents, its economy, its environment and its quality of life.
She said she thought that once they’re enacted, Boulder County’s updates of its oil and gas development rules “will be the strongest in the state.”
Commissioner Matt Jones, who’d worked with mixed success on oil and gas legislative proposals as a state senator before being elected to the county board in 2018, called Thursday “a great day.”
He said the updated Boulder County regulations are “a great thing for local government” and represent its elected officials’ efforts “to protect the people they represent to the highest degree that they can under state law.”
“We couldn’t have done this without the public input we received,” and the efforts of the county staff, Commissioner Deb Gardner said. She thanked staff and told them “how proud I am to have been part of this process.”
However, Lynn Granger, executive director of American Petroleum Institute Colorado, wrote in a Thursday night email, “Colorado’s natural gas and oil industry believes that many of the county’s provisions adopted today will prove subjective, unnecessary and unreasonable with respect to future land use decisions.”
“As we have repeatedly emphasized to Boulder County officials, such decisions must not be arbitrary or capricious in nature,” she wrote. “We feel that many elements of the new regulations, especially if used to deny a permit application, would fall short of that standard. In addition, many of the standards adopted appear duplicative or work in concert to effectively prohibit the development of private mineral rights.”
Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, reminded in an email that Colorado communities cannot ban oil and natural gas development “through outright bans or through regulations that make it impossible to access a mineral owner’s private property and investment.”
Boulder County’s new setback requirement “is based more on politics than science,” he continued. “The data shows a 500-foot setback is protective of public health. The measurements and toxicological analysis that we saw during the Mission Change rule making” by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency that regulates oil and gas development, “made that clear.”
Boulder County’s commissioners and their staff have said the new regulations were made possible by the Colorado Legislature’s passage last year of Senate Bill 181, which included a theme of protecting the public’s health, safety and welfare when considering oil and gas proposals and which gave local governments more authority to adopt regulations about those operations.
“While Senate Bill 181 granted the county more authority to regulate oil and gas, it did not allow the county to ban development,” Granger wrote. “Regrettably, the regulations adopted today threaten to do just that.”
The updated Boulder County regulations, in addition to containing provisions about setbacks, also will impose stricter noise, odor and anti-air pollution standards, and cleanup requirements as well as financial assurances of the operators’ ability to comply with all the county conditions as they explore for oil and gas, produce it, and eventually close down a site’s well operations.
Elise Jones noted Thursday night that many of the people who had called Planning commission members at a hearing last month and the Board of County Commissioners at its hearing on the regulations earlier this month sought to have the county prohibit any future oil and gas exploration anywhere in unincorporated Boulder County.
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 has written 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.”