Nearly four years after the law was changed to protect public health and safety, the permitting of oil and gas development continues without addressing the cumulative impacts.
In 2018, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the wedging of 84 wells among dense residential neighborhoods in Broomfield. Dismayed health and safety advocates turned their efforts to ensuring that this would never again occur, resulting in landmark changes to state law in 2019 to prioritize the protection of public safety, health, welfare and the environment related to oil and gas development. Nearly four years later, hope hangs by a thread as the Commission has not set a date to begin cumulative impacts rulemaking mandated by the 2019 legislation. We as local electeds must still advocate to protect our constituents.
As the Commission continues to approve oil and gas development nearby, we have already experienced the cumulative impacts of oil and gas firsthand in Broomfield. Some of my neighbors chose to move away due to the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development near their homes. In the non-exhaustive list of 35 cumulative impacts of oil and gas operations that Broomfield city councilmembers submitted to the Commission with our public comments, we included links to public documentation of how these adverse impacts have occurred during oil and gas operations in the City and County of Broomfield during the past several years.
Broomfield’s substantial investment in air quality monitoring reflects the concern of our residents about the air they are breathing. We have experienced short-term impacts like nosebleeds and respiratory issues, with residents reporting morethan 500 health concerns between January 2020 and December 2021 during peak pre-production activities. The corresponding health study that was funded by Broomfield was just published in the peer-reviewed journal the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. What lurks in the future may be long-term impacts like the possibility of leukemia and asthma developing from exposure to a cocktail of hazardous air pollutants, increased particulate matter and high ozone levels.
Residents were sleep-deprived and anxious when they were awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of what many described as a freight train or jet engine. Noise from pre-production drilling and hydraulic fracturing engines and continuing noise from compressor stations during production must be considered in combination with ambient noise. The Commission must review existing guidelines to ensure they are protective by considering data that municipalities like Broomfield have gathered. Enforcing guidelines using reliable monitoring will also be necessary.
When residents were alarmed by a large smoke plume rising from a pad immediately following the nearby Marshall Fire, the operator’s apology did not reduce the real risk of pad fires. Other Broomfield pad examples included a November 2021 fire and a March 2022 fire. Area fire departments must buy equipment and train for oil and gas pad fires, local governments must prepare evacuation plans and residents living within two miles of the pads must be prepared to evacuate if necessary.
Broomfield is very proud of its open space and the priority we place on the environment and wildlife. When Broomfield was overwhelmingly compelled to site a multi-well pad on its taxpayer-funded open space, it impacted the very community that set the land aside for recreational, aesthetic and wildlife sustainability purposes. When an operator’s activity in Broomfield open space destroyed burrowing owl habitat, Broomfield cited the operator in violation of Broomfield Municipal Code and the operator pled no contest, paying only a $400 fine.
Soil contamination from oil and gas infrastructure due to leaks and spills can require extensive remediation costs and can be disruptive to neighborhoods. Examples in Broomfield were a March 2022 midstream pipeline leak and the leaking of an improperly plugged and abandoned well. Not only were the remediation costs from the well leakage absorbed by the Commission in 2020 due to a bankrupt operator, it also delayed a neighborhood housing development.
In addition to specific cumulative impacts which need to be addressed during rulemaking, there are also some general principles that should apply to the Commission’s deliberations. Comprehensively understanding the impacts of oil and gas production and quickly acting on them in measurable, quantifiable ways are immensely important. An operator cannot simply state the cumulative impacts are “near negligible” without supporting analysis based on real data.
The Commission must also work with other state agencies to ensure accomplishment of its mission. All agencies have the responsibility to do their part in addressing very complex issues in a timely manner and to coordinate their efforts in an order that effectively accomplishes the mission.
SB19-181 gave the Commission the ability to use the precautionary principle in making decisions in conjunction with scientific research and other data. The nonproduction of resources in certain cases is objectively reasonable where the cumulative impacts would substantially impact public health, safety, welfare, the environment or wildlife resources.
The Commission needs to honor the 2019 mandate for cumulative impacts rulemaking by pausing the review and approval of permits. I urge this Commission to promptly begin the rulemaking process in order to stop further exacerbation of the current, significant impacts of oil and gas development on natural resources and public health that exists in Broomfield and other communities.
Jean Lim, of Broomfield, is a member of the Broomfield City Council and serves on the Board of Directors for Colorado Communities for Climate Action.
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