A Senate panel on Thursday approved a proposal from Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer that would mandate new schools be set back a minimum of 2,000 feet from oil and gas facilities.
Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, in an interview with Colorado Politics said Senate Bill 21-114 was designed to address a loophole in current law that allows school districts to bypass the local land use process and potentially site new schools as close as 25 feet away from oil and gas facilities.
“That's not protecting the health, welfare and safety of our kids, our educators,” she said. The bill would institute what Kirkmeyer referred to as a “reciprocating setback” for new schools, meaning that “whosever there first, the other guy has to be 2,000 feet back.”
The bill cleared the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee on a 4-3 vote with Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada joining the panel’s Republicans in backing the measure. That vote came after Kirkmeyer introduced an amendment to address concerns raised about the bill during an initial hearing earlier this week.
At that hearing, representatives from the Colorado Sierra Club, the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate and the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans highlighted what they saw as a pair of issues with the bill.
For one, the language of the original bill would allow for the setback minimum of 2,000 feet established by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to be overridden by local ordinances. Witnesses testified that Weld County, for example, has set its setback minimum at 500 feet.
“We don’t like that,” Ramesh Bhatt, chair of the Colorado Sierra Club’s conservation committee, told the panel on Tuesday. “We would want the children to be protected in the first place.”
Those testifying in opposition to the bill also raised concerns that plugged and abandoned wells were excluded from the setback requirement. Kirkmeyer on Tuesday said that was because those wells were excluded from the oil and gas facility definition established by the COGCC and she wanted to keep definitions consistent.
Still, she brought an amendment on Thursday addressing both issues raised earlier in the week. The new proposal set a uniform minimum of 2,000 feet for setbacks and struck the language excluding plugged and abandoned wells.
But she still faced opposition from three of the panel’s Democrats. Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the Transportation and Energy Committee, said the amendments brought the bill much further forward than the original draft but added she still had concerns.
“I think there's some stakeholder engagement that needs to be done with the school districts and [the Colorado Association of School Executives] and [the Colorado Association of School Boards],” she said.
Kirkmeyer in an interview countered that she didn’t see the bill as a “jurisdictional issue.”
“The school districts still, with the passage of this bill, would not have to go through a local land use process; they would just have to adhere to a setback requirement the same way they adhere to the building code,” she said. “Makes sense to me.”
The bill now heads to the full Senate, where Kirkmeyer said she’s optimistic about its prospects.
“I would hope that [Senate lawmakers] would all realize that this bill is really about protecting the health, welfare and safety of schoolkids and educators in those facilities, that's what the setback requirement was put in place in the first place,” she said. “So hopefully with this, they would take that under consideration.”