Foote, oil and gas industry still prepping in run-up to school setback debate

A graduation ceremony at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. The drilling operation was permitted to be sited just 400 feet beyond the school running track.

A graduation ceremony at Northridge High School in Greeley, Colo. The drilling operation was permitted to be sited just 400 feet beyond the school running track. (Sara Barwinski)

“Yeah, it seems like they don’t like it that much,” said state Rep. Mike Foote on Thursday. He was talking about the oil and gas industry’s view of his new drilling setback bill.

Foote’s House Bill 1256 would clarify that the minimum 1,000-foot distance separating schools from new oil and gas wells must be measured from the school property line, not from the school building.

Foote, a Democrat from Lafayette and a Boulder County deputy district attorney, has taken up the issue of suburban drilling on the northern Front Range repeatedly at the Legislature, only to run into stiff resistance from the industry and Republican lawmakers. He said he has been in preliminary communication with the industry about his bill.

“I gave them a bill draft and talked about any technical amendments they might want to add. Haven’t really heard back,” he said. “We’ll see how it plays.”

His is the first bill on drilling so far introduced by a Democrat at the Capitol this year. The battle over state regulation of the industry and over local zoning-style control over drilling has been a perennial topic at the Legislature in the courts and on the campaign trails.

Tracee Bentley, spokesperson for the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the industry in the state has yet to take a stand on the bill but that the proposal appears at first blush to be redundant.

“While we are still carefully reviewing the bill, Colorado already has a rule and process in place to review appropriate distance, which we believe is effective and working very well,” she said. 

That matches with what Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said earlier this week.

It was only four years ago that the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] rulemaking on setbacks more than tripled the distance for operations near high-occupancy buildings to 1,000 feet,” he was quoted to say at Colorado Politics. “Then, in 2015, the governor’s oil and gas task force debated the issue at length and found further increases to be unnecessary. Nothing has changed since then to merit a new debate.”

Foote is leading reporters and lawmakers on a tour this weekend of northern Front Range sites where wells and production facilities are placed just hundreds of feet from school playgrounds and out-buildings.

“You know, it seems crazy. The rigs are right there. Accidents happen,” Foote said. “There was that big spill in Hudson. It sprayed 28,000 gallons in two days. They couldn’t contain it. The radius was 1,000 by 2,000 feet, well within the setback range.”

The Anadarko Petroleum well blew in Hudson at the end of January, spraying oil, gas and drilling waste water. In 2014, the industry working the area experienced a series of tank explosions and fires outside Greeley and in Frederick and Platteville. The billowing-black-smoke from the fire in Frederick headlined local news broadcasts. The fire burned for an hour before a crew extinguished it and while students and staff at a nearby school “sheltered in place.” The tank fire at a Platteville site burned for hours.

Foote said he hasn’t received definitive news that the industry is opposed to his bill.

The bill is schedule to be heard in the House health committee next Friday Thursday, March 23.

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