Colorado Regulators Stick to the Science for Permitting Wells in Weld County, Sidestep Broomfield’s “Political” Complaint
Almost a week after the two-day hearing to consider a new oil and gas project just outside Broomfield, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) approved the proposed well site at Cosslett East and denied the city and county of Broomfield’s (CCOB) attempt to use findings from a flawed health survey to serve as a way to shut down any new oil and gas production within a couple miles of its borders.
This is the first hearing of its kind following the passage of SB 181, which allows proximate governments to weigh in on neighboring counties’ oil and gas development. The hearing tested whether COGCC would uphold public health-based standards or allow unfounded allegations to prevent economic growth.
Ultimately, after questioning representatives from CCOB, the COGCC chair Jeffery Robbins stated during the hearing:
“I did not feel like the city and county of Broomfield’s scientific evidence outweighs the scientific evidence from Crestone.” (note: Crestone is now Civitas)
Following yesterday’s decision, the Denver Business Journal wrote:
“The self-reported symptoms gathered by Broomfield wasn’t a scientifically valid public health study, but rather a survey about health problems people experienced that “primed people to think about oil and gas.””
The activists’ argument fell short for three main reasons:
Fact #1: The Broomfield health survey did not show oil and natural gas production was causing negative health impacts.
As EID has previously discussed, CCOB’s Senior Environmental Epidemiologist Meagan Weisner and the University of Colorado School of Public Health’s Lisa McKenzie presented the preliminary findings from their non-peer reviewed health research. Despite, the research showing participation bias, not accounting for COVID 19 – which was rampant during the time of the study, or seeking to understand the complex causes or longevity of the symptoms studied, activists attempted to use this as evidence to obstruct the Cosslett East location – but to no avail. In fact, in the preliminary findings presentation, Weisner admitted that:
“This study won’t tell us the cause of the symptoms, so we cannot prove causation that oil and gas emissions caused an increase in symptoms…We don’t really know the cause” (emphasis added)
These limitations were on further display during the hearing when Commissioner Karin McGowan asked Weisner why she believed that this development was going to be the one that “pushes the area over the edge” in terms of harmful emissions, given that the area already has over 60 active wells and the proposed Cosslett site would be more than 2000 feet from residential development. Weisner responded that they “are just being cautious” despite a lack of evidence to justify preventing new development.
Fact #2: The results from continued air monitoring devices don’t back up the health survey and show responsible operations.
What’s more, Broomfield constantly tests well-pads for air quality and emission rates and have found little activity of concern across their entire monitoring footprint.
Employees from Ajax Analytics, the company responsible for the air quality testing, were questioned during the hearing on the locations and findings of the air monitoring devices. The Ajax representatives explained that the results from Broomfield’s air monitoring showed that the “majority of automatic triggers were observed at 300 feet,” with only one known trigger at 2,000 feet, the current setback rule for the state of Colorado, which is significantly closer than the one to two-mile distance of some survey participants who reported symptoms. An additional finding from the monitors shows that, when analyzing the “small number of incidents,” most of them happened during the pre-production phase and within 300 feet of the pad, underscoring that the vast majority of activity around well pads are safe and environmentally sustainable.
What’s more, given that the proposed Cosslett site has no residential development currently planned within 2,000 feet of the site, much less 300 feet where the “small” amount of triggers have typically been seen, current air quality findings show that it’s likely no Weld County residents will ever be affected by this development.
The air quality specialists were also questioned on how they differentiate oil and gas emissions from everyday road and construction or other industrial pollution, especially as new housing developments and construction are rampant across the area. In short, experts conceded that while there is a slight difference in the chemical makeup of the emissions, there is “grey area in the middle,” as often emissions from oil and gas production and community pollution are mixed together.
In addition, the specialist acknowledged that there was no way of saying what percentage of emissions in the county of Broomfield are from oil and gas, as the number would be biased because the monitors are “focused on monitoring the oil and gas sites.”
During cross-questioning, Weisner, a supporter of the air monitoring program leaned into this bias, admitting:
“We are not trying to target any other industries, just oil and gas.” (emphasis added)
If one was to believe Dr. McKenzie and Ms. Weisner’s health survey, air monitoring quality would likely be triggered often, as those living within one and two miles from the site reported experiencing more health-related symptoms. However, the results from Broomfield’s air monitoring surveys show hardly any instances of increased pollutants in the air in this range.
Fact #3: Broomfield refused to work with the operator earlier on in the process to reach an agreement to plug older wells in the local area, demonstrating the town’s “political intentions”.
EID has previously highlighted Colorado operator’s best in class operating standards, with Civitas, the owner of the proposed well site in question, being no exception. In fact, COGCC Commissioner Michael Cross, commented on Civitas’ commitment to the community and environment, saying:
“The applicant is taking the necessary steps to protect what he has been asked to protect.” (emphasis added)
To underscore this even further, early in the permitting process, Civitas attempted to work with the Broomfield community by offering to take two older wells offline and plug them. Plugging older wells would have further reduced localized greenhouse gas emissions, because modern technology and processes used with newer wells are more sustainable.
Broomfield’s decision to not pursue the agreement with the operator was “at the end of the day a political decision,” according to the City of Broomfield’s own department director Andrew Valdez.
Bottom Line: The decision by the COGCC to permit the pad site highlights Colorado operators’ continued commitment to best practices for responsible oil and gas development and a respect for the setback established as safe by the state after an extensive rulemaking process. This approval is good news for Colorado residents as an additional natural gas well pad means additional clean, reliable and affordable domestic energy resources.