Personal space, home space: How close is too close?

A lot of us in the San Juan Basin know what it is like to live next to gas and oil development. We have done it for years. Or so we think.

A drilling rig shows up, works all day and night for a week or so, the fracking equipment shows up for another week, then we have a pump jack as a neighbor and go on with our lives. We live with a huge, loud jet-like noise, and all the associated smells for a bit, but then just a pump jack after that.

Yet that is not the full story. With the advent of shale gas and oil, the drill rig may be drilling many well bores from the same pad, and the bores may be up to one-half-mile long, in the producing formation, rather than just a vertical hole. The drilling and fracking may last for months, even up to 18 months. The jet-like noise and smells may be a much more permanent neighbor.

Not what we are used to.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, is currently in the process of an update to its regulations on setbacks from homes, schools and other occupied places. The debate is: How close is too close?

The current rules are for 150 feet in rural areas (to prevent harm if the drill rig falls), and 350 feet in high-density urban areas. The COGCC proposal is for 350 feet everywhere.

In the past, the argument against greater distances was based on a technological barrier to reaching the gas or oil if the well wasnt right over the target area. That is no longer a barrier; horizontal drilling is now the norm. The new technology, which brings the longer times of noise and smells, also brings the means to move them farther from the people who live on the land being drilled.

This technological advance must be used not only for the benefit of the industry, but for the people who have to live with the development as well.

It is not just a matter of convenience. Having a jet running next to your home, with all the exhaust and noise, is in itself enough to cause real harm. But gas and oil drilling does have accidents, and some of the exhaust can be harmful.

The COGCC should adopt a setback of 1,000 feet from homes and 1,500 feet from high-occupancy buildings, recognize that all landowners within 1,000 feet of the well pad are directly impacted and give them the right to fully participate in the permitting process.

Such a rule would not inhibit gas and oil development, either technologically or economically, but it would lessen the burden on the people who live next to this development.

We all use gas and oil. We all also deserve to sleep at night and breathe fresh air in our yards or gardens. The old setbacks didnt work for the old style of drilling. The new setbacks need to recognize the new drilling realities.

dan@sanjuancitizens.org. Dan Randolph is executive director of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.

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