A drilling operation in Greeley in 2014
A drilling operation in Greeley in 2014. (RJ Sangosti, Denver Post file)

PARACHUTE — Colorado residents fighting new oil and gas development — 53 wells and a fracking waste facility on the banks of the Colorado River — have turned to an untested state rule in a last-ditch push for protection.

The proposed Ursa Resources wells here, drilled within 1,000 feet of Battlement Mesa homes, also would be near a public water system and a state wildlife area.

Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment officials have raised concerns, warning that six storage tanks at the waste injection facility "creates a significant contamination risk to the public water supply" and that a spill could hurt wetlands and the river.

"A ban on fracking? Most of us aren't after that. But we want responsible siting," said Battlement Mesa resident Bill Nelson, whose retirement home sits 846 feet from the proposed drilling.

A second project would put 22 more oil and gas wells in Greeley, where companies have drilled 600 wells within city limits. Greeley residents said they see no option for stopping Extraction Oil and Gas from drilling but that, under Colorado's new "urban mitigation" rule, extraction must minimize impact using higher sound walls, quiet rigs and pipeline instead of trucks to move oil and gas out to markets.


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These cases have emerged as tests of the rule established under a task force process that Gov. John Hickenlooper launched in 2014 as a political compromise to keep anti-fracking measures off election ballots.

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director Matt Lepore now must decide how much "mitigation" is appropriate to offset health and environmental harm.

"We are evaluating best practices (and) are cognizant" of CDPHE concerns, Lepore said.

"We wrote a rule that we think gives us the opportunity to put strong mitigation measures in place for large facilities in urban mitigation areas," he said. "We will use the rule as it was intended."

Ursa vice president Don Simpson said "there are already injection wells and pads closer along the river" and that waste from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would be pumped deeper than 8,000 feet, separated from the river and communities under rock.

"This will be a good project," Simpson said.

Ursa plans mitigation including controls on noise and dust, and has removed plans for the waste injection well from a drilling permit, he said.

"If you don't have an injection well site, you're going to have increased trucking," Simpson said.

The residents in western Colorado and the northern Front Range are pressing their cases amid rising tensions around oil and gas drilling. The new development would bring Colorado's statewide well count to more than 53,683 active wells and 40,000 inactive wells. Community groups are gathering signatures for ballot initiatives aimed at establishing 2,500-foot buffers and boosting local power to regulate oil and gas activity near people.

The residents said they see few options after the Colorado Supreme Court ruling that state rules promoting oil and gas development trump local rules to restrict or ban drilling near homes and schools. State lawmakers directed the COGCC to promote efficient oil and gas development while taking into account environmental and human health impact.

"In Colorado, you can't stop the drilling. This is a last-ditch effort," said Carl Erickson, chairman of the citizen group Weld Air and Water. "We'd like Extraction to change the times they drill, use low-noise rigs, low lighting, and take the oil and gas out using pipelines. If there are no tanks on site, then volatile organic compounds would not be released."

Colorado's split estate legal system confers property rights in underground minerals, setting up clashes between landowners and companies. Surface landowners must grant reasonable access for mineral owners to extract oil and gas.

The new urban mitigation rule applies where 22 homes are located within 1,000 feet of a proposed oil and gas facility or 11 homes within a semicircle around the facility.

In Greeley, Extraction has proposed 22 wells and 22 oil tanks that would be located closer than 1,000 feet to at least 14 homes.

Company spokesman Brian Cain said they have put in 14-foot earthen berms around the site and have worked with local government officials to meet their requests.

"We are committed to working with our neighbors to minimize impacts of developing the energy resources we all need," Cain said. "Triple Creek is a flagship energy development facility that utilizes best available technology and practices to minimize impacts to the local community."

Matt Sura, an attorney challenging the industry projects in Parachute and Greeley, said the COGCC should be using the new rule "to address the handful of large facilities proposed within neighborhoods to move these facilities as far as possible from homes and, if they cannot be moved, require best available technologies to mitigate the impacts to the greatest extent possible.

"Gov. Hickenlooper's legacy on oil and gas issues is tied to the way this rule is applied to neighborhoods," Sura said. "If the Hickenlooper administration fails to protect neighborhoods from the worst impacts of oil and gas development, then the people would be right to decide that the system is broken and needs to be changed through the citizen initiatives."

Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700, bfinley@denverpost.com or @finleybruce