Science Notes

Colorado Enacts New Setback Distances for Oil & Gas Development

How Science Played a Role in the Decision

By Mikkela Blanton

January 2021

When it comes to environmental, climate, and energy policy, Colorado is a leader within the United States. In April 2019 Governor Jared Polis signed groundbreaking legislation into law: Senate Bill 181 (SB 181), An Act Concerning Additional Public Welfare Protections Regarding the Conduct of Oil and Gas Operations and, Therewithin, Making an Appropriation. The new law mandated that the surface impacts of oil and gas be regulated to minimize adverse effects on human health, changing the directive and mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the regulatory body responsible for managing oil and gas operations in the state. 

Under the new law, the COGCC was tasked with updating various rules and regulations. One of the most contentious rules pertains to setback distances: the legally required distance between oil and gas development operations and homes, schools, and other buildings. Under the previous law, the setback distance was 500 to 1,000 feet in most cases. In November 2020, after months of hearings, the COGCC released its final decision: setback distances in Colorado were increased to 2,000 feet (with some exceptions), becoming the most protective state-mandated distance in the nation. For reference, Ventura County, California, recently passed a rule that set setback distances at 1,500 feet from homes and 2,500 feet from schools. The regulation went into effect in January 2021. While testimony from various stakeholders was heard throughout the decision-making process, it’s clear that scientific evidence weighed heavily on the commissioners’ final decision. 

Oil and Gas in Colorado: Why Setback Distances Are Such a Divisive Issue

In the context of Colorado’s historical and present-day economy, it is clear that the oil and gas sectors are prominent. The oil and gas industry generates about $1 billion in state and local taxes each year, is responsible for over 30,000 direct jobs, contributes more than $13 billion to the state’s gross domestic product, and is the economic cornerstone of many Colorado communities. As a key part of this sector, hydraulic fracturing – colloquially referred to as “fracking” – has catalyzed burgeoning oil and gas production both across Colorado and nationally.

After SB 181 was passed, those in the oil and gas industry, as well as communities and workers dependent on oil and gas, were primarily concerned that increasing setback distances would result in huge economic losses and, for some, a loss of life as they knew it. Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) President Dan Haley referred to the setback decision as shameful; even Governor Polis was quoted in 2018 as saying, in regard to a ballot proposition that would have increased setback distances to 2,500 feet, that too dramatic of a setback increase could serve as a virtual ban on fracking in Colorado – exactly what opponents of the increase were worried about. 

Oil and Natural Gas Production in Colorado, 1990-2018

Graphic courtesy of: 

But those who supported a large increase to the setback distance–at least 2,000 feet if not more–were focused on what setback distances meant for other issues, namely human health and wellbeing, the environment, and climate change. From these sets of concerns, COGCC decision-makers took up the difficult task of balancing personal values against science and issuing a decision based on the best available information and a reasonable interpretation of the evidence. 

How the COGCC Made Its Decision

My investigation into how the COGCC made its decision, which involved reviewing hours of testimony and hearings recorded by the COGCC, as well as researching local news stories, reveals that in the face of contested views – including disputed scientific findings – the commission, led by Commission Chairman Jeff Robbins, issued a decision that it believed best aligned with the legislative intent of SB 181: to protect public health and welfare. When asked about the decision-making process, Robbins was transparent about how he weighed the evidence, stating that he found credence in a study by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE). The CDPHE report conducted an assessment and review of 27 different studies of populations living near oil and gas, and used emissions data from Colorado wells to model hypothetical exposures and the potential risk of health impacts. The study found adverse health impacts to humans at distances up to 2,000 feet (the farthest distance assessed in the study), a limitation of the study that has been critiqued. However, it’s important to note that the study’s methodology has also been criticized. For example, some experts contend that because data used in the 2019 assessment was collected prior to 2016, it is no longer reflective of current operational practices. Robbins’ confidence in the study was affirmed by the testimony of experts, as well as that of people living near oil and gas operations who spoke of impacts similar or identical to those detailed in the study. 

What the COGCC Decision and Setback Case Reveals About the Role of Science

The role of science in this decision-making process was paramount. Experts nationwide showed up virtually to commission hearings to testify about the effects of oil and gas pollutants and emissions on human health and the environment, as well as what increasing the setback distances might mean for oil and gas operations; it is unlikely that commissioners would have been able to arrive at a decision that reasonably aligns with the legislative intent of SB 181 without scientific information about the impacts of oil and gas on human health and the environment. It’s important to recognize, however, that the science is not fully settled. While there is scientific consensus that proximity to oil and gas operations can have adverse impacts on human health, there is no single specific distance that scientists agree is safe for all people in all circumstances. There is a need for more research on the subject; hopefully, the collaboration between scientists, communities, and decision-makers will continue and findings can be shared in a way that provides useful, impartial information, and further helps to inform future decision-making processes. 

What’s Next for Fracking?

One question that this case doesn’t answer for us is this: what do increased setback distances  (especially in combination with state- and nationwide goals to curb emissions and improve  renewable energy technologies) mean for the future of hydraulic fracturing in Colorado and across the United States? 

We know that many, including those in our frontline communities, oil and gas-dependent communities, activists, lawmakers, and others, are just as invested in finding answers as we are.

Join CO LSEN to discuss the future of fracking in Colorado and beyond at a virtual event on Friday, Feb. 19 from 1-3 pm. More details to come in the near future!


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