The O&G policies of the Fort Collins City Council: a setback or a step forward?

The Larimer Alliance has been closely monitoring the evolving policies of the City Council as they develop specific rules around how to address past and possible future oil and gas (O&G) facilities inside the city limits. Closely related are the O&G policies adopted by the Larimer County Commissioners.

The latest news is that the Council has nearly completed its rules about setbacks with regards to existing O&G wells. Setbacks, of course, refers to how close new O&G facilities (oil wells, storages tanks or pipelines) are allowed to be constructed next to homes or buildings or other outdoor facilities (parks, bike paths, etc); and reverse setbacks refers to how close such homes, etc. are allowed to be built to existing O&G facilities.

There was a ‘first reading’ on September 5, 2023, where an initial vote was taken, and the ‘second reading’ will be at the next Council meeting on September 19. The vote at this second reading will be final, and will establish the land use code governing setbacks and O&G facilities, disclosures.

There was a good summary of the issue in an article in the September 8, 2023 Coloradoan. (“Fort Collins continues oil and gas regulation: Here’s what reverse setbacks look like“) In summary, the Council recommended a 2,000 foot setback for producing wells, a 500 foot setback for abandoned wells that have not been plugged (“reclaimed”), and a 150 foot setback for plugged and abandoned wells (“fully reclaimed”). The only change from current rules is that the setback for producing wells was increased from 500 to 2,000 feet.

At our last count (see this map on the LA website), there are 113 producing wells in the county, none of which, I believe, are inside the city. So, the issue could be seen as a ‘tempest in a tea cup’, which has a small chance of ever happening. There are just a handful of plugged and abandoned, or even ‘temporarily abandoned’, inside city limits, as recorded on the other maps on our website.

Despite the low probability of any new wells getting drilled here, the LA sent the following letter to the Council on September 1, 2023:

Subject: Larimer Alliance Statement on Draft Reverse Setback Standards for Oil and Gas Sites
Mayor Arndt and City Council Members:

We are aware that on September 5 Fort Collins City Council will be conducting a first reading on Land Use Code recommendations from Planning Staff regarding reverse setbacks of property developments from existing oil and gas sites. We have been part of the deliberations with your staff and appreciate their continued involvement in our participation in this process. We have also made our concerns known before the Planning and Zoning Commission when they reviewed the Staff recommendations in their July 17 meeting. 

We have received a copy of the proposed regulations from Kirk Longstein in the Planning Department, and want to comment again on the recommendations presented in that document. We have attached it here again for your review, although we are aware you will have it in your files already. 

Our concerns focus on three main areas of interest:

  1. Setbacks. We support the proposed inclusion of all buildings (not only residential properties) in the setback. However, the setback should be designated to the property boundary or outdoor use areas (rather than to only buildings) because health and safety should be protected for outdoor use areas, including play areas and outdoor recreation, picnic and work areas.

Existing oil and gas facilities pose serious risks to health and safety and require significant protective measures. To provide reasonable health and safety protection, the setback for new buildings from existing oil and gas facilities (aka “reverse setback”) should be the same as the setback for new oil and gas facilities from existing buildings and neighborhoods. 

Therefore, we do not support the proposed setback of only 500 feet to an abandoned (but not fully reclaimed) well, or the proposed setback of only 150 feet to a plugged and abandoned well. As evidenced in this recent article from the Colorado Sun, issues can come up years after the cessation of operations at oil and gas facilities, including wells that were deemed properly plugged and abandoned. While technologies have improved somewhat, cement and other materials remain subject to degradation and failure over time, posing risks to health and safety extending years and decades.

We appreciate that Staff does not recommend differentiating between types of active drilling processes whether conventional, fracked, or EOR. Whatever industry claims are made regarding emissions from different types of wells, no system is fail-safe.

To provide reasonable health and safety protection, the setback should be at least 2,500 feet. We do not support a 2,000 foot setback because it is not based on science and medical evidence regarding health and safety risks in proximity to oil and gas facilities. A large and growing body of medical research supports a setback of at least 2,500 feet and in 2022 the State of California established a 3,200 foot setback.

  1. We believe the monitoring of oil and gas sites after operations have ceased must continue to be conducted for a substantial period of time. Old oil and gas facilities pose dangers, as evidenced in the above noted article from the Colorado Sun. Any emissions would pose health and safety risks for the occupants of nearby property, and the potential for a next Firestone tragedy should not be taken lightly. We suggest monitoring for at least ten years would be appropriate.
  2. Disclosure requirements for any new development going in near an operating well site, or a site that has been abandoned, should be consistently delineated. If existing real estate law mandate that is the responsibility of subsequent owners following a developer’s initial five-year construction guarantee, that needs to be set by statute. If property developers are concerned that such notifications may impact the property value by suggesting a potential hazard may be present, we can only ask: How anxious are they to live in proximity to an oil and gas site, whether operational or ostensibly properly plugged and abandoned?

We are aware that reverse setbacks are perceived as somehow being different from the setback standards established for oil and gas operators seeking to set up new well sites. We could not disagree more. The potential hazard remains the same, no matter which perspective we are viewing it from. We are also aware that the City is still preparing operational standards for future oil and gas development that might happen within the jurisdiction of Fort Collins. 

All of this may seem almost academic given how few existing sites there are, and how limited the prospect for future oil and gas extraction is projected to be. However, making sure that consistent standards are in place is our best protection against any potential harm to our environment and our community’s health and well-being. We trust you will take these concerns seriously as you consider the question of how to handle reverse setbacks, and the development of residential and business properties near existing oil and gas sites. Thank you for your attention to this matter. 

The issue of abandoned wells is not a trivial one, because unfortunately there is a perennial risk of possible leaks from even supposedly plugged and abandoned wells. This recent article in the Colorado Sun is just one small example of this: Residential development in Erie, Longmont stalled after wells plugged decades ago start leaking oil and gas (August 28, 2023)

Indeed, the looming threat of thousands of “orphaned” abandoned wells that were not properly plugged is a known hazard. The cost of cleaning them up, as well as the 50,000 current producing wells, could cost as much as $7 billion. Consequently, Colorado legislators have been drafting legislation aimed at shoring up the funds to cover this. (See ‘Colorado’s new rules to prevent ‘orphaned’ oil wells could fail to cover cleanup costs, report says’, Colorado Newsline, September 9, 2023, and ‘Nearly half of Colorado’s 52,000 wells produce little or no oil. Who’ll pay to plug them?‘ Colorado Sun, August 22, 2021) Between 2015 and 2020, more wells were plugged than were drilled.

With this kind of evidence, the city and county needs to be mindful of any existing wells that will need to plugged, and how such plugged wells will be monitored into the future. At the moment, the issues have only been partially addressed, and will likely need to be revisited again. At least, the issue is not an immediately pressing one, and the city’s new rules on setbacks are an improvement over what existed before.

One thought on “The O&G policies of the Fort Collins City Council: a setback or a step forward?”

  1. It’s good to see the recent information on abandoned wells is not ignored. This is a huge battle for citizens of our state. It may only be second to our ozone pollution! Let’s hope Fort Collins government rules could be an example for similar communities.

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