Grassroots Organizing in Colorado Wins Historic Public Health and Safety Protections

Western Colorado Alliance wins in their decades-long fight for protections from harms by the oil and gas industry.

Adapted from Western Colorado Alliance’s Clarion newsletter.

As the roil of the 2020 U.S. election captivated the world, Western Colorado Alliance and its stalwart members continued to advance their work in developing healthy, just, and self-reliant communities by fighting for protections from the negative impacts of the oil and gas industry.

After almost a full year of rulemaking, these efforts paid off when, in late November, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) voted to approve a suite of new rules to protect public health, safety, welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources. Because of the tireless efforts of their members, the Alliance has secured a number of key victories that they have sought to win for decades.

The seven big changes

  1. Coloradans throughout the state now enjoy an enhanced capacity to engage with oil and gas permitting applications that could impact them. The new rules grant automatic standing to all tenants and homeowners who live within 2,000 feet of a proposed well pad.
  2. An analysis of possible alternative locations for well pads must be submitted with all permit applications near homes, important wildlife habitat, and disproportionately impacted communities. This analysis will play a vital role in allowing the state regulators to determine if the location selected by oil and gas operators is the most protective site available for drilling.
  3. Language has been included that specifically highlights the COGCC’s authority to deny permits on the basis of conflict with the agency’s mission to protect the health of people and their environment — including currently pending applications. This language empowers commissioners to enforce the letter and the spirit of these new rules.
  4. The COGCC has recognized itself to be an independent, coequal permitting authority that makes its own permitting decisions distinct from local governments. This was a crucial move that effectively created a set of minimum, state-wide standards designed to protect people and their environment which all operators must respect, regardless of which county they drill in.
  5. The assessment of cumulative impacts that oil and gas extraction has on the surrounding landscape and the people who inhabit it will begin in earnest. The rules will now require operators to produce data for impacts on water, wildlife, public health, and air emissions that are expected as a result of their activity. They will also be required to submit the estimated emissions from other proximate well pads for a comprehensive assessment from the COGCC.
  6. The practice of venting and flaring away excess natural gas is coming to an end in Colorado. Though operators will still be able to vent and flare in emergency situations, no longer will the wanton release of methane and other pollutants be a standard practice in our state.
  7. The commission has instituted new rules for wildlife and riparian areas. These include a wide range of measures, such as a 300-foot setback for new oil and gas development from rivers, and the protection of high priority habitat for several species.

But without question, the crown jewel of this rulemaking is the COGCC’s mandate that all new oil and gas drilling must be setback at least 2,000 feet away from homes. Though limited exceptions to this rule do exist, the standard setback for well pads has quadrupled, in part due to the commission’s acknowledgement of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s 2019 finding that people living too close to oil and gas wells are at an elevated risk of experiencing a host of health problems ranging from trouble breathing to cancer.

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Despite all that the Alliance has accomplished in the COGCC, they must be vigilant in defending our wins, and turn their gaze to the future of oil and gas in Colorado. In the spring, they intend to tackle the thorny issue of bonding and financial assurances in the state.

Wins for air quality

Though much of the Alliance Oil & Gas Committee’s attention has been focused on the COGCC mission-change rulemaking, our work also continues in the state’s Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC).

Earlier this year, members of Western Colorado Alliance successfully advocated for the introduction of new rules which will require operators throughout the state to begin monitoring their pre-production emissions.

The time range for this monitoring will include the ten days leading up to drilling, and go through the six months after production begins. The resulting data will be instrumental in informing the work of the AQCC as they strive to meet ambitious requirements set forth by both the state legislature and the federal government.

In December, the AQCC is poised to consider rules which would require faster leak repair for oil and gas pads near homes, and use equipment designed to engage with pressurized gas that does not result in additional emissions. As the work continues, the Alliance stands ready with the people of Colorado in the fight for clean air, healthy people, and a sustainable future.

Learn more:

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Taxpayers and Landowners Face Massive Liability from Orphaned Wells With Oil at $20

EPA Endangers Public Health During Global Pandemic by Suspending Enforcement of Pollution Rules

methane flare near oil wells

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