Proposition 112 seeks greater oil and gas buffer zone on Colorado landscape

Alex Zorn
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
A natural gas facility run by Ursa within the Battlement Mesa community in western Garfield County, with homes visible in the near distance. Residents of the community, built to house workers during the oil shale boom of the late 1970s and early '80s, have been among those pushing for greater setbacks between such facilities and homes, schools and other buildings.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Voters across Colorado are posed with a question on the Tuesday, Nov. 6, mail ballot that would reshape the oil and gas industry throughout the state. The initiative, Proposition 112, seeks to push the minimum setback requirements for new oil and gas developments to at least 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and other vulnerable areas.

The current setback rules, established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2013, set a 500-foot statewide setback from residences, as well as a 1,000-foot setback from high-occupancy buildings such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

Proposition 112 has received widespread criticism and support, with opponents, including the industry lobby, calling it a “ban on oil and gas in Colorado.” Community groups and environmental activists have voiced their support for an initiative they say gives greater weight to public health and safety and reins in what they say is an uncontrolled industry.

Earlier this year, advocates for the proposed setback change acquired an estimated 123,000 signatures, well more than the 98,492 required to put the question on the ballot, as environmental advocacy organizations across the state see it as a necessary step to address health and safety concerns felt by residents across the state.

The debate

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Prop. 112 was debated at an oil and gas ballot forum in the western Garfield County gas patch community of Rifle on Thursday, Oct. 4. There, Heidi Henkel, with Colorado Rising, a grassroots organization dedicated to protecting communities from the hazards of oil and gas development and which is campaigning for the initiative, said there were different reasons for the 2,500-foot setback.

Even some supporters of stricter setbacks have said that distance may be a bit too aggressive, suggesting that something closer to 1,500 feet would have been easier to swallow for voters who may be on the fence when it comes time to cast ballots.

But, Henkel said a deadly home explosion in the Front Range community of Firestone in April,2017 that was caused by gas leaking from an uncapped abandoned gas line from a nearby well, and some 15 similar incidents since, show the dangers of conducting such activities so close to homes and schools.

On the other side, opponents of the proposition see it as “a measure so extreme it disrupts the state’s regulatory balance and increases setbacks to five times the distance currently required,” according to Protect Colorado, a group fighting the initiative.

Republican state Rep. Bob Rankin, from Carbondale, up for reelection for the Colorado House District 57 seat, believes oil and gas regulations do not need to include greater setbacks.

“The 2,500-foot setback would devastate the oil and gas industry,” Rankin said at an Independent Voters forum in Glenwood Springs last month. “I represent 15,000 oil wells, three big coal mines — it’s the heart of the economy I represent.

“I think this is an attempt to put oil and gas out of business,” Rankin added.

His Democratic opponent, Colin Wilhelm, disagreed. And, while he is in the camp that would have preferred the measure be set at 1,500 feet, rather than 2,500 feet, he is in favor of protecting people’s health and safety.

“This will allow us to keep our people safe. It will allow us to keep our people healthy,” he argued.

counties opposed

Candidates for Garfield County commissioner are also leery of the measure, but differ in their reasoning.

“This is a gun to our head,” incumbent Republican Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said when he and his fellow commissioners passed a resolution last month opposing Prop. 112.

“If this goes through, communities in Parachute and Rifle would go into another recession,” Jankovsky said.

Jankovsky’s Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election, Paula Stepp, offered a position statement on both Prop. 112 and Amendment 74, which would make it easier for property owners, including those who own mineral rights, to seek “just compensation” from local and state government if they believe a law or regulation reduces their property value.

“It’s easy to imagine the financial mayhem if both propositions pass … a perfect storm for a perfect mess,” she wrote.

Stepp proposes a “middle path” when it comes to setback requirements.

“The specter of Proposition 112 should make it clear that it’s in the self-interest of the oil and gas industry to back off, with reason and compromise where they are not wanted by concerned property owners, neighborhoods and watersheds,” she concluded.

“Furthermore, the state and county, wherever possible, should act robustly in the best interests of its citizens,” she said. “Protecting them will also help to protect the long-term future of the oil and gas industry.”

Moffat County commissioners also unanimously agreed to oppose the initiative. Commissioner Don Cook said it was “devastating for Colorado,” according to the Craig Daily Press. Weeks earlier, the Craig City Council passed a resolution strongly opposing the statewide setback proposition.

“Out-of-state environmental activist groups are leading a campaign to ban oil and natural gas development in Colorado, showing a total disregard for the devastating economic impacts they will leave behind if they succeed,” states the Craig resolution. “Proposition 112 is a one-size-fits-all, blunt instrument that would create a de facto ban on oil and gas production.”

Congressman Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor, is also opposed to Proposition 112, calling it the “wrong solution for Colorado” at an industry conference speech in Denver, according to the Denver Post. Republican candidate for governor Walker Stapleton calls it an energy ban in disguise.

economic impacts

Many on both sides of the aisle continue to debate the economic impacts the proposed setback would have.

According to a study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, the natural gas and oil industry supported more than 232,900 jobs, providing nearly $23.1 billion in wages and contributing nearly $31.4 billion to the state’s economy, in 2015.

Common Sense Policy Roundtable conducted an economic analysis on the impact of Proposition 112, which Colorado School of Mines Mineral & Energy Economics Program professors found to be “reasonable projections.” It found that, by 2030, more than $26 billion in state gross domestic product would be lost annually. In the first year, 43,000 jobs would be lost, according to the study. By 2030, 147,800 jobs would be lost, it concluded.

A 2,500-foot buffer, nearly half a mile, while considered by some to be too extreme, is strategically based on polling and health studies, supporters say.

A report by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health shows harmful effects to the health of people living within half a mile of fracking operations, according to Colorado Rising.

According to a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission assessment, an estimated 54 percent of Colorado’s total land surface would be unavailable for new oil and gas development by adopting the 2,500-foot setbacks, and 85 percent of non-federal land would be inaccessible.

In Colorado’s top five oil and gas producing counties combined, 61 percent of the surface acreage (94 percent of non-federal land) would be unavailable, according to the assessment.

Supporters of the measure argue that, with horizontal drilling technology, those minerals should be accessible without drilling so close to homes and other occupied buildings.

Glenwood Springs Post Independent Editor John Stroud contributed to this report.

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