A proposal by a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum to drill 33 wells near a neighborhood in Firestone is shaping up to test new oil and gas rules that were touted as among the strongest in the country.
The wells that Kerr McGee wants to drill in southwestern Weld County are fewer than 2,000 feet from 87 homes. Rules approved in late 2020 as part of an overhaul of state oil and gas regulations required that wells be set back at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools — with some exceptions.
One of the exceptions allowed in the rules is a finding by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that a company’s plan provides protections that are “substantially equivalent” to a 2,000-foot setback. COGCC director Julie Murphy said in a Feb. 2 document that Kerr McGee’s application complies with the rules, but didn’t recommend whether the commission should approve the plan.
The five-member commission was scheduled to consider the application in a public hearing Wednesday.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a letter to the COGCC that it should deny the application unless Kerr McGee agrees to 13 steps to minimize the potential health and environmental impacts of the wells. The steps include air-quality monitoring, equipment to capture emissions, procedures to minimize noise and odors and using electric drill rigs to reduce emissions.
The COGCC staff agreed with Kerr McGee that some of the recommendations from the health department aren’t feasible, such as using an electric drilling rig rather than one fueled by natural gas.
The COGCC has previously approved one application that will allow wells within 2,000 feet of homes after the landowners gave their consent, one of the carve-outs permitted under the regulations.
Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson with the community group League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans called the findings by the COGCC staff “wildly frustrating and confusing.” The group, represented by Earthjustice, an environmental law firm, opposes the two well pads Kerr McGee wants to develop.
“This application is exactly what (Senate Bill) 181 was passed to prevent,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.
The bill, passed by the legislature in 2019, mandated revamping state rules to prioritize public health, safety and the environment when regulating oil and gas. Before that, the COGCC was tasked with balancing mineral development with protecting public health and the environment.
“This is residential drilling all over again. This is a massive, mega pad with 26 wells on it plus another with seven more wells on it within 2,000 feet of 87 homes and hundreds of people,” Forkes-Gudmundson said. “There are thousands of homes within a mile.”
The 33-well pad, called McGavin, would be 763 feet away from the closest home, according to the COGCC director’s report.
“I don’t know how they can on one hand say that the COGCC has the most protective regulations in the country and on the other hand not deny this,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.
Bill Coffee and his wife moved in September 2021 to the Falcon Point at Saddleback subdivision in Firestone. He estimates his home is a little over 2,000 feet from the proposed 26-well McGavin pad, but is still concerned the noise, truck traffic and emissions from the equipment and oil and gas production will be problems.
“Technically we would be outside of the zone that was set up by Senate Bill 181, but things that go into the air don’t know a border,” Coffee said.
His wife is immunocompromised, Coffee added, and he worries about air pollution and emissions of fracking fluids, which can include such cancer-causing substances as benzene.
The Firestone Board of Trustees approved the locations of the two well pads in January. Under an agreement between the town and Kerr McGee, the company will give Firestone a 78-acre tract of undeveloped land.
Proponents of 2,000-foot setbacks pointed to a 2019 report by the state health department that outlined certain short-term health impacts for people living within 2,000 feet of fracking sites. Industry representatives opposed the setbacks, saying they would hinder oil and gas development and that Colorado voters previously rejected a ballot measure requiring 2,500-foot buffers.
When approved, the 2,000-foot setbacks were described as among the toughest in the nation. But at the time, Joe Salazar, an attorney with the environmental group Colorado Rising, said the exceptions to the rule amounted to loopholes for the oil and gas industry.
“I had indicated pretty early on that I believed abuses could happen through this rulemaking, through these exceptions, these variances,” Salazar said.
The COGCC staff said Kerr McGee held a community meeting in July 2020 and a virtual meeting in August 2021 to discuss its plans. Other outreach included mailings, phone calls and visits to homes.
The company submitted several letters of support to the COGCC.During the public comment period, from Oct. 1-31 last year, the COGCC received 20 comments on the proposal, some that were opposed to oil and gas operations in Firestone.
Forkes-Gudmundson said several residents his organization has talked to didn’t know they could file protests or believed it was a done deal. He contended that Kerr McGee hasn’t sufficiently proved that its proposed technology and procedures will provide the same protection that drilling farther away would.
The COGCC cited the company’s plan to automate some of the work, use pipelines to deliver water rather than trucks to the site and use noise-reduction equipment on its drilling rigs as some of the “most stringent best management practices” in Colorado.
However, Forkes-Gudmundson said he wants to see more evidence, including computer modeling of the site’s emissions, to show Kerr McGee’s proposed operations would adequately protect area residents.
“It would be a lot of work. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it,” Forkes-Gudmundson said. “But these are impactful decisions. These locations, if they get approved, are going to be in people’s backyards for decades.”
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