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Extraction oil and gas sites in Broomfield.EXPAND
Extraction oil and gas sites in Broomfield.
Anthony Camera

COVID-19 Concerns Halt Colorado Rising Push for Setback Initiatives

The anti-fracking group Colorado Rising has decided to stop gathering signatures for a handful of initiatives geared to the November ballot, all of which involve placing setbacks around oil and gas wells.

According to Joe Salazar, the former legislator who is now Colorado Rising’s executive director, the decision to stop this year's effort was prompted by health concerns around COVID-19, and was not made lightly. Many of Salazar's boardmembers live close to oil and gas operations — but the virus does not have boundaries.

“We have health-care professionals on our board who were very concerned — and still are concerned — that if we are forced to do signature-gathering, then we will serve as a vehicle for COVID," Salazar explains. "This puts ourselves at risk and puts the public at risk. It just wasn’t worth it."

After Governor Jared Polis issued his emergency declaration and stay-at-home order in March, there wasn’t enough time to safely gather the 124,000 signatures needed for each proposal, Salazar explains. But while Colorado Rising has decided not to move forward on the initiatives right now, other proponents will continue, he notes.

For Dan Haley, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Colorado Rising’s decision represents both an end to political conflict and a benefit to the economy. He says the move will give a degree of certainty to Colorado businesses and allow the state to focus on making cleaner, safer and better energy.

“This is a win for Colorado and for working families from Greeley to Grand Junction and everywhere in between,” Haley says in a statement to Westword. “The end of this constant cycle of divisive battles at the ballot box will bring much needed stability and predictability to our state business climate as we begin to climb out of this economic hole.”

Colorado Rising pushed a ballot initiative in 2018 that would have required 2,500-foot buffers around oil and gas wells, but voters rejected it. Six initiatives were proposed for this year’s ballot: five that would mandate that wells be at least 2,000 to 2,500 feet from occupied buildings, waterways and other sensitive areas, and one that would increase the bonds for proper shutdown and cleanup to $127,000 per well.

While Colorado Rising is stepping away from oil and gas initiatives this year, the organization will continue to work on rulemaking, litigation and community power-building. Setbacks from wells are being debated right now, Salazar notes, as part of a law passed last year that prioritizes safe conduct of oil and gas operations. “Even though we’re unable to run a ballot initiative, we’re able to go in front of this administrative agency and fight for a 2,500-foot setback,” he says.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which held a Wellbore Integrity Rulemaking Commission hearing June 10 as part of the implementation of that new law, has proposed a 2,000-foot setback, which Salazar says is a good start. The hearing focused on specific enforcement changes to improve oversight of the life cycle of oil and gas wells, ensuring protection of groundwater.

Jen Murphy, COGCC deputy director, said at the hearing that consensus-building from key leadership in industry and the environmental community allowed the commission to make changing wellbore rules a priority. As a result of this collaboration, state agencies, oil and gas operators, and citizen and environmental organizations could work on State Oil and Gas Regulatory Exchange recommendations and build them into COGCC’s rules.

“It’s incredible to come forward in such a technical environment with consensus changes that we all agree elevate the regulatory regime in Colorado to better protect groundwater and do so in an implementable way,” Murphy said.

The newly adopted protections involve three main changes: health checks throughout the life cycle of the well, isolation of fluids escaping the well, and public transparency. They become effective November 2.

“I am proud of the rules adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for two reasons,” Polis says in an announcement. “First, these advances protect the environment in a manner that is achievable and are the most protective standards in the nation in terms of protecting groundwater in the development of oil and gas. Second, these rules reflect what we can accomplish when we engage with people of different viewpoints.”

That includes Colorado Rising, which will continue to fight for a 2,500-foot setback.

“The best thing that we can do is move forward to clean, renewable energy and stop fracking altogether,” Salazar says. “And we’re working furiously on that mission.”

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