Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission

Activists who oppose issuing new permits for oil and gas operations hold up signs at a hearing of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

It's unlikely that any discussion these days on rules regarding the oil and gas industry is smooth sailing, but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is expected this week to take up some of the most controversial of all: setbacks.

Last Friday, the commission finished the first of six weeks of rulemaking designed to dramatically reinvent how the oil and gas industry is regulated. The rulemakings are the result of Senate Bill 19-181, which started off by changing the COGCC's mission from fostering oil and gas development to requiring it be regulated in a manner that protects public health and the environment.

The COGCC's voluntary commission, whose terms ended on June 30, handled the first round of rules: on the COGCC's hearing process a year ago; flowlines (pipelines) last October; and wellbore integrity in early June. Wellbores are the actual holes drilled into the ground to look for oil or gas.

That left the new professional, full-time commission that was seated on July 1 the biggest chunk of rules dealing with mission change, setbacks, local government authority, abandoned or orphan wells, protection for public water systems and wildlife, cumulative impacts, and permits.

Related: Meet the COGCC's five professional commissioners

Commission Chair Jeff Robbins spoke with reporters Friday on his impressions of the first week. Robbins was appointed to the commission at the end of June but previously served as its director. 

"This week has exceeded my expectations," Robbins said. The new commission is tackling weighty topics that are not easy, but he said he was impressed with the intelligence, deference and discretion shown by the new commissioners during the first week of hearings.

He also spoke about the role of technology. In this era of COVID-19, commission hearings are being held via Zoom. One thing this process has allowed that hasn't always been easy: participation by those who live in more remote parts of the state, especially the Western Slope. This has been wonderful for stakeholders, Robbins said. It has allowed people as far away as from the North Fork Valley, near Delta, to participate and not have to drive all the way to Denver to present testimony. "From a process perspective, this has worked exceedingly well," Robbins said. 

That change in process may find its way into future proceedings, even once the pandemic is over, Robbins indicated.

Robbins also said he believed the first week showed a "level of consensus from stakeholders" on issues that could have been fairly contentious, such as the dual regulatory authority created in SB181. That dual authority requires both state and local governments to approve oil and gas permits. Robbins said there was a lot of collaboration on the permitting issue tied to that dual authority.

There's also a lot of collaboration, according to Robbins, on the issue of cumulative impacts of oil and gas. Robbins said he believed stakeholders and the commission are committed to collaboration on the issue, especially as it applies to greenhouse gas emissions, a topic to be shared with the state's Air Quality Control Commission.

"It was a positive first week," Robbins said. 

But will that positivity continue? Hard to say, given that the next big issue on the COGCC's agenda is setbacks, beginning Thursday. The state's minimum is 500 feet from homes or other occupied buildings, such as schools or hospitals. Environmental activists have sought setbacks of 2,500 feet.

Changes in the rules for setbacks apply to new permits only. Proposed rules require 2,000 feet between a working pad surface and a school or child care center. Distance from a neighborhood — defined as at least 10 residential buildings — or a high-occupancy building, such as an apartment, is 1,500 feet. 

Setbacks have been targeted for ballot measures by environmental groups several times in the past; in 2018, voters rejected Proposition 112 that would have mandated a 2,500-foot setback from schools, homes and other occupied buildings.

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