House widens buffer
Preliminary OK given to bill that increases space between schools, drill sites
Over the protests of Republicans who called it an “unfair assault” on the oil and gas industry, the Colorado House of Representatives on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would establish a larger buffer between schools and new oil and gas drilling facilities and wells.
Current rules established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission bar production facilities from being built closer than 1,000 feet from a school building — a provision that Democrats call a dangerous loophole. If it’s unsafe to be within 1,000 feet of a school building, they contend, what about school playgrounds and ballfields?
House Bill 1256, approved Tuesday on a voice vote, would apply that 1,000-foot distance, called a setback, to a school’s property line rather than a building. Existing wells and permitted sites would be grandfathered in.
But while the bill’s likely to get final approval from the House when it’s heard on third reading, it’s unlikely to become law. If passed, it would head to the Senate, where Republicans are almost certain to reject it.
Democrats and environmentalists said the bill represents a sensible safety precaution. When the measure was heard in committee at a marathon hearing earlier this month, dozens of witnesses cited examples of air pollutants, spills and fires at oil and gas sites as evidence that a bigger buffer was needed.
“It just doesn’t make any sense to put something that can explode a couple hundred feet away from a playground,” bill sponsor Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, told
the House health committee.
Republicans, though, pointed to a study published earlier this year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that found little evidence of health problems caused by living near an oil or gas facility, deeming it a “low risk” public health concern.
And, they said the industry was already sufficiently regulated by the oil and gas commission.
“What more do we want of this industry other than we don’t want this industry?” Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, said Tuesday.
The commission has long been criticized by environmentalists who believe it is too deferential to the industry. Earlier this month, environmentalists got a boost from a Colorado Court of Appeals ruling, which determined the commission has to protect public health and the environment and not merely “balance” public health concerns with the industry’s interests, as commission officials have long interpreted state law to require.
That decision may yet be appealed to the state Supreme Court.