After approving several amendments to its oil and gas facility regulations in October, the Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners recently adopted several more new rules — making its regulations some of the most stringent in the state.
The new oil and gas facility regulations, approved in a 3-2 vote on Nov. 14, extend the distance oil and gas operations can be to homes and other occupied structures.
In addition, the new regulations call for water, noise and air quality monitoring and soil contamination testing.
After about two hours of public comment, Commissioners Jessica Campbell-Swanson, Leslie Summey and Carrie Warren-Gully voted to approve the proposed changes.
“Our job, as a board, is to protect human and environmental health, and that is what we are doing while still allowing for oil and gas operations,” Campbell-Swanson said. “I’m proud of the work our community has done, that our county staff has done and how industry has been willing to collaborate on this prudent and protective regulatory program.”
The new regulations will apply to all future oil and gas facilities in the county.
The new regulations require standard setbacks from occupied structures to be 3,000 feet, with a possibility for oil and gas developers to reduce this to as little as 1,000 feet in some cases with special permission.
Occupied structures include homes, offices, retail spaces, schools, churches and any other place that people would occupy, said Jason Reynolds, the county’s planning division manager.
Based on his team’s research, Arapahoe County now has the largest occupied structure setback requirements in the state, Reynolds said.
Prior to the approval, the county’s standard setback from occupied structures was 2,000 feet.
Environmental advocates and Arapahoe County residents who live near current and proposed oil and gas facilities advocated for larger setbacks for months.
Recent conversations about oil and gas facility regulations were triggered by a proposed oil and natural gas project called Lowry Ranch.
The proposed project, put forward by an oil and gas company called Civitas Resources, would be at a 33,440-acre site east of Aurora, including areas near the Aurora Reservoir.
In October, the county approved one-mile setbacks from existing and planned reservoirs, unless downgradient conditions can be demonstrated.
After that decision, community members still wanted setbacks from residential and other areas — triggering the commissioners to evaluate the round of regulations they approved this week.
Jared Bynum, an environmental justice advocate for Colorado Rising, said he is cautiously optimistic about the 3,000-foot standard setback.
He added that his group stands with their partner advocates at Save The Aurora Reservoir that have been requesting standard setbacks of one mile from reservoirs, waterways and occupied structures with no exceptions — but the decision to put setbacks at 3,000 feet is a step in the right direction.
“Coming from a county commission that is traditionally a little bit more conservative around these things, we think that’s representative of great progress,” Bynum said.
The new regulations also include specific setback regulations and review processes for facilities near waterways, landfills and more.
Monitoring and testing
In addition to the setback changes, the county’s new rules require operators to generate ground and surface water quality plans.
They also require operators to pay for repeated air quality and noise level testing to ensure compliance with regulations.
“These requirements go beyond current state regulations set by the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment,” a press release from the county said.
In an incident where fluids move off of a well pad, operators are required to test for soil contamination and develop remediation plans if there is contamination.
Not all supported the new regulations.
“I’ve watched in the industry when, basically, someone comes and tries to regulate too much and too fast and not have the proper context of things — it ends up shutting down a lot of the businesses,” said one public commenter, who used to work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs with oil and gas. “Everybody cares about being safe. Everybody wants to be fair. Nobody’s out to try to hurt anybody. But there is a limit to where regulations step too far.”
District 3 Commissioner Jeff Baker, who voted against the new regulations along with District 5 Commissioner Bill Holen, said he heard from the community that the process was too fast and he was not in favor of rushing it.
“We all agree that the health and safety of our citizens is priority number one — but there are also other things that we’re we have to consider, property rights, legal things,” he said. “Even though I voted against it, I think a lot of the rules that we passed yesterday are going to, one, provide a safe and secure environment to our citizens — and I don’t object to those, per se — I just thought we needed to have more public comment before we approved them.”
County spokesperson Chris Henning said county staff started developing the most recent slate of regulations after the county’s Oct. 10 meeting.
Reynolds said the county wanted to address new regulations quickly so they could be in place when potential new oil and gas applications, which they are expecting any day now, are submitted.
Prior to the Board of County Commissioners’ official decision, the planning commission voted unanimously to deny the proposed regulations at its Nov. 8 meeting.
In early 2024, the county will discuss more oil and gas regulations related to reverse setbacks, inspection programs, refining air quality regulations and more.
Editor’s note: This story was corrected to fix the spelling of Jason Bynum’s name.