School Setback Rule An ‘Epic’ Collaboration Between Industry, Schools, And Conservation Groups
The state agency charged with regulating oil and gas drilling in Colorado voted unanimously to increase setbacks from school facilities in a new rulemaking supported by a diverse group of local governments, school boards, trade and conservation organizations, and other stakeholders from across the state.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) held their rulemaking hearing in Denver on Tuesday to discuss new regulations regarding setback requirements between oil and gas drilling permits and a new definition of school facilities that extended the current 1,000-foot setback from school buildings to outdoor properties, such as the property line of the school’s footprint or adjacent areas owned by the schools and used for sports or playgrounds.
COGCC Chair John Benton acknowledged the work done to “create an epic moment in rulemaking” to have all the parties—who are often at odds on so many oil and gas-related issues—come together from across the state.
The stakeholders that shared wide agreement on the main goal—increasing setbacks on schools—included Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Boulder County, Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners, Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Colorado Petroleum Council, Conservation Colorado, Garfield County, the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, the Adams 12 Five Star Schools and 27J School District, and the Colorado Association of School Boards.
The rulemaking hearing focused on expanding the 1,000-foot setback based on an expanded definition of “school facility.”
“SCHOOL FACILITY means any discrete facility or area, whether indoor or outdoor, associated with a school, that students use commonly as part of their curriculum or extracurricular activities. A school facility is either adjacent to or owned by the school or school governing body, and the school or school governing body has the legal right to use the school facility at its discretion. The definition includes Future School Facility,” the draft proposal read.
The rule provided exceptions—called “variances”—to the setback rule for the local school governing body to agree in writing to the variance, or for COGCC to consider a well or production facility inside the setback if it determined that the project would be “technically infeasible or economically impracticable” and was accompanied by appropriate mitigation measures.
COGCC commissioners praised the coalition that provided important input throughout the rulemaking process, noting repeatedly the collaboration and effort by the interested parties in working together on the issue for the past six months.
Commissioner Erin Overturf thanked the “diverse set of stakeholders,” particularly on the work on child care centers as part of the setback proposal.
“I appreciate you guys getting together, and putting your heads together, to come up with a solution that’s going to cover the smallest Coloradans,” Overturf said.
Commissioner Howard Boigon asked for a photo to commemorate the occasion. “This may be the first time in the history of the commission that this group of esteemed counsel are all sitting at the same table and advocating for the same language,” he said.
That included the state’s largest environmental organization, Conservation Colorado.
“We have, alongside these other organizations, been working on this issue for several years at this point and I’m really pleased to be here and I want to thank you all for your time,” Sophia Mayott-Guerrero told the commission, offering support for the proposed rulemaking change. “[T]ruly this is an issue that we have really a plethora of support from our members on, I think this is a straightforward issue and easy to talk about why we should make sure that these setbacks are as this proposed rule would make them.”
Mayott-Guerrero noted the future school facilities provision as a highlight of the rulemaking change given the expected increase in state population over the next dozen years.
“And so as a proactive measure this notice requirements for future school facilities will really improve the communication for communities and schools and the industry to be able to be working together to plan accordingly, again as the population meets these industrial activities,” she added.
Following the vote, Mayott-Guerrero Tweeted, “After years of work, we have taken a step in protecting our health and safety by ensuring a further distance between oil and gas wells and our smallest residents. We passed #schoolsetbacks ! #COpolitics #oilandgas.”
“Today’s rulemaking is a direct result of good-faith compromise and collaboration, and we appreciate the partnership that helped move this effort forward,” said Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley
“The oil and natural gas industry participated in countless meetings and conversations over the past year with schools and school districts, and participating environmental organizations, and we are proud of what has been accomplished,” said Dan Haley, President and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
While State Sen. Matt Jones said he favored the rule change as the bare minimum but criticized the COGCC as giving the oil and gas industry something akin to home field advantage.
“I generally support this rule change,” said Jones. But the process, Jones argued, was “broken.”
“It’s almost like it’s a football game. And oil and gas gets to play offense and everyone else has to play defense the whole time. It’s just not right the way it’s set up,” he added.
Jones also opposed the economic impracticability line.
“Why in the heck is economics in this decision? This is a health issue for children. I agree with the speaker who said before, this is a very small ask. And it takes this much work to change it. And it just shows how the system’s broken. But today please pass this and please make the changes I suggested,” he concluded.
Also speaking during the morning public comment period before deliberations on the rulemaking began, several community members and activists affiliated with the failed Proposition 112 setback campaign spoke against the rulemaking, rejecting the proposed distance of 1,000 feet and calling for increased setbacks to be considered, or taking issue with the variance clauses.
“I thought after the 112 proposition that we would be able to relax but we haven’t. Nervousness is never higher. If what I’m about to say doesn’t change the trajectory of this decision making then our work on a ballot initiative in 2020 will,” Heidi Henkel, a Colorado Rising activist, told the commissioners.
Throughout the hearing activists held signs that called on the commission to listen to the more than one million voters who supported Proposition 112, a ballot measure defeated last month that would have increased state setbacks on non-federal lands to 2,500-feet.