What You Need To Know About Drilling & Hydraulic Fracturing Near Homes and Schools in Colorado

Jon Goldin-Dubois“Schools and homes need greater protection from oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Colorado. We urge Colorado to increase setbacks and provide communities more control over oil and gas drilling proximity to homes and schools.”

– Jon Goldin-Dubois, President of Western Resource Advocates

Oil and Gas Development is Routinely Approved in Residential Areas in Colorado

The state of Colorado believes that oil and gas development should be exempt from all local zoning restrictions. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency charged with regulating oil and gas development in Colorado, routinely approves oil and gas development in residential areas.

Western Resource Advocates lead an effort in 2012-2015 to create greater protections for families and communities – including greater separation from oil and gas facilities and homes and schools.

2012 Research Shows People Living Near Oil and Gas Fracking Operations Exposed to Hazardous Air Pollution

Researchers from the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health released a study in March 2012 showing that people living within a half-mile of oil and gas fracking operations were exposed to air pollutants at a level that is five times higher than the federal hazard standard. Researchers found a number of potentially toxic chemicals in the air near the wells, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. The chemicals could lead to neurological or respiratory effects that include eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing.

The Battle Over Setbacks to Protect Public Health

In 2012, Western Resource Advocates published “Too Close for Comfort” – highlighting how many oil and gas wells were within 1,000 feet of schools in northern Colorado. Western Resource Advocates’ research found 32 public schools near active or proposed drilling sites in just four northern Colorado counties.

At the time, the COGCC allowed oil and gas wells to be placed as close as 150 feet from homes and 350 feet from schools.

Due to the pressure of Western Resource Advocates and our partner organizations, and the outcry of communities throughout Colorado that were being impacted by oil and gas drilling near homes and schools, the COGCC updated state oil and gas regulations.

Amid a boom in drilling activity in Colorado’s densely populated Front Range, Western Resource Advocates argued for a minimum setback of 1,000 feet for residences and 1,500 feet for schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other similar facilities. These arguments were not without precedent; the State of Maryland requires 1,000 foot setbacks (without exceptions), and several towns in Texas require setbacks of 1,500 feet.

Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry opposed reform efforts and the COGCC ultimately passed setbacks that were unsupported by science. In 2013, minimum setbacks were increased to 500 feet from residences and 1,000 for schools and hospitals.

But the 500-foot setback included two significant exceptions that could render the rule all but meaningless:

  1.  The “Beware Thy Neighbor Exception” Surface use agreements with landowners can allow drilling sites to be pushed to the edge of a neighbor’s property line, even if that change moves the well closer to a residential area and inside the new 500-foot setback. People who live closest to drilling operations are at the greatest risk for health problems, and the “Beware Thy Neighbor Exception” increases those risks.
  2. The “Expansion Exception” Existing active well locations are not subject to the new 500-foot setback, and “active well” size is not defined. Not only are active well pads grandfathered into the rules and not subject to a 500-foot setback, one active well pad can be expanded to include multiple different drill sites within the same well pad. In other words, drill sites that don’t yet exist are essentially grandfathered and exempted from the new rules.

Watch a video that explains each of these exceptions: When Fracking Exceptions become the Fracking Rules from Western Resource Advocates on Vimeo.

2014-2015 Oil and Gas Task Force Fails to Recommend Authority over Siting to Communities

Partly as a result of the failure of the State to pass protective regulations, citizens and local governments began passing moratoriums and bans of hydraulic fracturing. In 2014, in an effort to avoid a new 2,000-foot setback regulation from going to the state ballot, Governor Hickenlooper formed the Oil and Gas Task Force.

On the task force, the oil and gas industry voted against any increased setbacks. What did pass were two proposals attempting to give local governments a meaningful role in oil and gas siting decisions and to give the COGCC director greater authority to require greater mitigation measures to protect public health and welfare and to require “large scale oil and gas facilities” to be located farther away from homes when feasible. However, the proposals fail to give local governments any authority over siting of industrial activities within their communities.

Multiple horizontally drilled and hydraulically fractured wells are typically co-located on a single well pad. These “large scale oil and gas facilities” create much greater impacts to neighboring land uses than one vertical well. Both a single well and a “large scale oil and gas facility” are subject to the same minimum 500-foot setback from homes.

Western Resource Advocates Will Continue to Support Greater Separation of Facilities from Homes and Schools

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemaking to implement the task force recommendations was scheduled to begin in November 2015. Western Resource Advocates will continue to support greater separation of oil and gas facilities from homes and schools, and greater protections for our air, water, and public health and welfare.


Project Staff

Laura Belanger

Laura Belanger

Water Resources & Environmental Engineer

Rob Harris

Robert Harris

Senior Staff Attorney