Colorado regulators limit how close oil and gas wells can be drilled to development like roads, schools, and businesses. The closest that a well can come to a home, for example, is 500 feet. But there is no statewide standard for how close new homes can be built to existing wells.
In Firestone, for example, where the home exploded, the city allows houses to be built just 150 feet away from wells. That home on Twilight Avenue was built just 178 feet from the well that was linked to the incident.
This proximity is not unusual. Our analysis shows that since 2013, on Colorado’s Northern Front Range, at least 220 new wells are within 500 feet of homes. In some cases, operators have been allowed to drill closer. In other cases, homes have been built near existing wells.
Tensions over this closeness are bubbling up in communities in Northern Colorado.
“We used to be worried about asthma and cancers and ruining our water. Now we’re also worried about our houses blowing up,” said Barbara Mills-Bria, of Lakewood, Colo., during a public meeting with oil and gas regulators in Denver this summer.
The stated intent of Colorado’s setback regulation is to “protect health, safety, and welfare.” While the rule, updated in 2013, does address nuisances like noise and lighting issues, according to rulemaking documents, there wasn’t enough data at the time to address more serious problems like air emissions.
“There was not, in our opinion, sufficient, clear, undisputed scientific evidence to base a setback number on,” said Matt Lepore, Director of the COGCC. “Frankly, nothing would make me happier than [to have] somebody to tell me 1,007.5 feet is safe for everybody. That would be fantastic. That’s not going to happen.”
Are current setbacks adequate to protect health and safety? Researchers tried to answer that question in a 2016 paper published in a journal called Environmental Health Perspectives. They examined existing setbacks in Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado ranging from a few hundred feet to over a thousand. The conclusion was that these distances are not always good enough to protect people from risks like air emissions and explosions.
In the aftermath of the Firestone home explosion, regulators are not currently considering making changes to the setback rule. In the absence of state action, some towns like Broomfield, Thornton, and Lafayette are taking on the task of regulating themselves, pushing for greater setbacks within their own city limits.