Colorado Parents Urge Lawmakers To Take Action On Oil, Gas Setbacks In 2019 Session

Parents and teachers who traveled to Denver on Dec. 18 to watch the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission increase the buffer zones between schools and oil and gas wells didn't have much praise for the state board.

Instead, they questioned why the state wasn't going even further to protect students. They also raised the prospect of another ballot initiative to extend the setbacks if state lawmakers don't act in the upcoming session.

"How can you sit here month after month in these hearings and listen to the begging and pleading of the public, the elderly and the parents, and ignore every single one of their requests?" Denver resident Maria Orms said as she advocated for a setback of 2,500 feet. "The desperate parents here today are just trying to keep their children safe while they are at school."

Her comments came hours before the state board voted unanimously to change how the minimum distance between schools and oil wells is measured.

Under previous rules, the 1,000-foot setback started at the school building. But now, the distances will increase because it will have to include playgrounds and ballfields.

The new rules were supported by elected officials, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Association of School Boards.

Still, the new regulations didn't satisfy several parents who say 1,000 feet still is too close for comfort. They came to the meeting armed with anecdotes of recent oil and gas facility explosions around the state.

"We do need this rule (adding the playgrounds to the buffer zones), but we need a bigger setback," Lafayette parent Kate Christensen said.

Many of the people in the audience supported Proposition 112, a ballot measure that would have increased the setbacks between oil wells and schools to 2,500 feet. The measure failed by a large margin in the November election. Oil and gas operators said it would harm the state's economy.

The defeat was still on the minds of the parents who continue to advocate for bigger setbacks.

"I thought that after the 112 proposition, we'd be able to relax," Broomfield resident Heidi Henkel said. "But we haven't. Nervousness has never been higher."

Henkel suggested she would join an effort to get the setback question back on the ballot in 2020.

It isn't clear yet how the legislature will address the setback issue when they gavel in the 2019 session Jan. 4.

Incoming Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo was noncommittal when he was asked in November whether he would support new legislation increasing the setbacks.

But incoming House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder has been more outspoken about potentially proposing new oil and gas regulations.

Reuters reported that Becker told oil and gas investors on a Dec. 19 conference call that more changes could be coming this session.

"Some things the industry is not going to like," she reportedly said during the call. "I think they're always nervous about anything that could slow down permitting. That could end up happening."

Meanwhile, supporters of increased setbacks are circulating a petition to send to incoming governor Jared Polis. More than 2,600 people had signed on by Dec. 21.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.