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The Battle Over Oil And Gas Development In Colorado


Colorado's governor is stepping up safety regulations on the state's oil and gas industry. This follows a recent home explosion that killed two people. But one controversial issue the new measures do not address is how far oil and gas pumping rigs have to be from homes. Leigh Paterson of the Inside Energy public media consortium has the story.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: All over Colorado's Front Range, pump jacks are framed by snowcapped mountains and nestled among subdivisions. That closeness is causing tension at public meetings, like this one last month.


BARBARA MILLS-BRIA: And that - and we used to be worried about asthma, and cancers and ruining our water.

PATERSON: This is Barbara Mills-Bria of Lakewood.


MILLS-BRIA: Now we're also worried about our houses blowing up.

PATERSON: This distance between wells and homes is called a setback. Colorado's regulation is meant to, quote, "protect health, safety and welfare." But increasing this distance would restrict where companies could drill, so operators have fought changes.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The efforts to shut down oil and natural gas in this state have been very devious.

PATERSON: ...With ads like this one last year, when industry dumped over $15 million into fighting a pair of ballot proposals. One of them would've increased the state setback to 2,500 feet. Those proposals went nowhere, but smaller changes have gone through.

A few years ago, state commissioners voted to increase the distance between drilling and homes to 500 feet. It was a hard-fought compromise among everyone from energy companies, to home developers to residents. The updated distance addresses nuisances like noise and lighting issues. But when it came to more serious problems like air emissions...

MATT LEPORE: There was not, in our opinion, sufficient, clear, undisputed, scientific evidence to base a setback number on.

PATERSON: Matt Lepore is Colorado's top oil and gas regulator. He says he would love a concrete number.

LEPORE: Frankly, nothing would make me happier than somebody to tell me, 1,007 1/2 feet is safe for everybody. That would be fantastic. That's not going to happen.

PATERSON: ...Because, he says, there still isn't enough science. So are current setbacks adequate? Last year, academic researchers looked at regulations in Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado. They found that even the largest setbacks were not always enough to protect people from risks like air emissions and explosions. In the absence of state action, some towns are trying to decide what's safe on their own. I meet Mayor Randy Ahrens in a public park in Broomfield, where there's a massive oil and gas project on the table.

RANDY AHRENS: Towards the Front Range there, you can see a beige tank.

PATERSON: ...One of four sites that could be home to a grand total of 99 wells - close to a retirement community, and a proposed school and reservoir. Ahrens wants to keep all of that at least a quarter mile away from wells. When people ask him why he's so concerned about safety, he takes out his phone.

AHRENS: I just keep it with me, and I can show them.

PATERSON: ...And shows them this.

Oh, wow.

It's a photo of a giant fireball - a well blowout. Ahrens worked in that Texas oil field in the '80s and was there that day.

AHRENS: A unit lost control and the flames were about 150-foot-high in the air.

PATERSON: That's something Ahrens never wants to see in his town. With the new safety recommendations, he's hoping Broomfield can be a model for how people and oil and gas can coexist. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.



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