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As energy boom nears cities, a backlash grows

Published on NewsOK Modified: February 27, 2013 at 8:15 am •  Published: February 27, 2013

"We understand the necessity of drilling for oil and gas," said Marc McCord, an activist who has fought against energy extraction in Dallas. "But drilling in a densely-populated urban area is about as insane as anything on the face of the earth."

In Colorado, drilling traditionally focused on the western side of the Rockies or on the Eastern Plains. But wells have inched into Front Range communities, where 90 percent of the state's population resides.

"People are saying 'we thought we bought our house in suburbia, or at least exurbia, and now someone is drilling an oil well here," said Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore.

The commission had required drilling operators to disclose to the state what chemicals they are injecting into the ground during fracking.

In a nod to the reality of rigs inching closer to homes, the commission earlier this month passed new rules that apply somewhat different standards to urban and rural areas.

In both settings they require 500 feet between occupied buildings and energy wells, 1,000 feet for schools and hospitals — though the distance requirement can be waived by property owners where drills are to be dug.

The difference between urban and rural settings comes in how easily the rules can be waived. In urban areas, adjacent landowners have to agree to the waiver, while in rural ones it can be done unilaterally. In either zone, the drilling company can also ask the government for a waiver.

The rules replace earlier limits of 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban ones. Energy operators also must meet with homeowners and others who live within 1,000 feet of their proposed projects to listen to their concerns, not use open pits to store drilling waste and ensure their venting system is closed to prevent sending methane into the air.

"That package easily makes it the most protective of any state I'm aware of," Lepore said. "We've got 50,000 wells and 100-plus year history of production."

Environmentalists note that a couple of other states — Maryland, which has little energy extraction, and energy-rich West Virginia — require a greater distance between residences and rigs.

"Three years ago, this would have been really bold," said Earthworks' Baizel. "But the drilling's gotten so intense, I'm not sure it's that bold."

The energy industry sees the regulations as too inflexible.

"This rule goes too far by ultimately impacting the farmer, the rancher, mineral rights owner, business owner and home developers," Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, said in a prepared statement. Critics note it hampers the building of new housing near energy fields. The energy industry had sought smaller setbacks that it said would be less cumbersome.

"This is a huge benefit to our country," the IPAA's Bell said, "and not something we should be scared of."


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