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Money, Health At Odds In Debate Over Prop. 112

Oct 4, 2018

Larry Forman stands outside his house in Battlement Mesa, overlooking a well pad operated by Ursa Resources.
Credit Aspen Public Radio

Larry Forman lives in Battlement Mesa; sometimes, outside his house, he smells sulphur.

 

“[It’s] like rotten cabbage or something like that. It kind of reminds you of a wet dog, but it’s not exactly like a wet dog,” he said.

He doesn’t know what it is, but thinks it’s coming from the natural gas well down the hill from his house. Forman studied the distance and concluded it’s 765 feet, close enough that a good golfer could easily drive a ball from his back yard and land it near the well pad.

Colorado operators can drill up to 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from places like schools and hospitals. This could change this November, as Proposition 112 would ban new drilling within 2,500 feet of homes, and schools and drinking water sources.

The difference between the current setback and the proposal is like one OK golf shot versus playing a few holes.  

Forman plans to vote yes on 112.

“I have to, pretty much, because what we’re doing now isn’t working,” he said. He and neighbors are tired of cajoling state regulators to ease up in approving wells next to homes.

People around the state say regulators always side with the industry, which is why over 170,000 people signed petitions, circulated by the group Colorado Rising, to get Proposition 112 on the ballot.

Colorado Rising claims the 2,500 foot setback is a “last ditch effort” to put a safer buffer between homes and drilling. That distance, which is about a half-mile, is based on a study by Colorado University’s School of Public Health, concluding people suffer the worst health effects within about a half mile of oil and gas development.

Anne Lee Foster, an organizer with Colorado Rising, says there are plenty of health risks, including increased rates of cancer, respiratory disorders and low birth weight in babies.

The industry disagrees and points to a study by the state’s health department, which found “limited evidence” connecting poor health to living near oil and gas operations.

“There is no justified science behind the 2,500-foot setback,” said Scott Prestidge, the communications director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which is an industry lobby group. The 2,500-foot setback, he said, will rob Colorado’s economy of billions of dollars.

“It’s a job killer plain and simple,” said Prestidge.

Many in Garfield County agree, including the commissioners who, in September, signed a resolution opposing the setbacks.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky fears they would hurt the county’s tax base. Schools, hospitals and fire departments all depend on property tax from oil and gas operators. If that money is taken away, Jankovsky said, “Western Garfield County will go into a recession, probably very close to the recession that we were in in 2010.”

Proposition 112 applies to private land only. It makes pretty much all of Garfield County’s private land unavailable for oil and gas drilling, which is where the drilling happens. The county has 11,000 active wells; 10,000 are on private land.

The county has lots of public land, however, so why can’t oil and gas companies drill there? Janskovsky claims it’s not worth it to them, as the federal permitting process is too burdensome. It can take months, even years, to get through the environmental reviews.

 

If 112 passes, Jankovsky thinks oil and gas companies will leave the county. If they do, it probably wouldn’t happen immediately: The 10,000 wells on private land could still operate until they need a new permit, which is when the increased setbacks kick in.  

The choice on Proposition 112 is essentially between two promises. One claims to protect public health without sacrificing the economy. The other says it protects the economy, without compromising public health. It’s up to the voters to decide which promise they believe.