Coloradans reject setback restrictions on new oil and gas development

DENVER – Colorado oil and gas companies landed a significant victory election night as voters rejected sweeping restrictions on the booming industry.

Proposition 112 would have required any new oil and gas development that’s not on federal land to be set back at least 2,500 feet — almost half a mile — from homes and such “vulnerable areas” as playgrounds, lakes and rivers. The current limit is 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, health care centers and other high-occupancy buildings.

Although natural gas production has been stable over the past decade, oil production in Colorado has doubled in the past five years – the bulk of it driven by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Critics of the well-stimulation technique say it poses dangers to public health.

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said workers got involved because their livelihoods were at stake.

“What’s been amazing to me is seeing the people in this industry step forward. People who don’t like politics and don’t want to be involved in politics, but they understand you don’t get to choose your moment,” Haley said.

Oil and gas companies, including Anadarko and Noble Energy, poured millions into the political interest group Protect Colorado. Through mailers, door-to-door visits and TV ads the group trumpeted the industry’s economic success, and raised concerns about what would be lost if companies faced new restrictions.

The opponents said the measure would have banned new oil and gas activity on most non-federal land in Colorado and cost the state jobs. The industry generated $10.9 billion in production value in 2017,they said, and supported many other industries and jobs. State and local governments would also receive less in tax revenue if the measure were to pass, they argued.

Supporters of the measure said it would have reduced health and nuisance impacts — headaches, nausea, traffic and dust, for example — associated with drilling sites. They say it would have given property owners greater certainty about the location of new oil and gas sites close to their property.

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Fracking opponents are running out of avenues to challenge drilling in Colorado. In 2012 and 2013, Longmont and Fort Collins imposed short- and long-term bans on oil and gas development, but the Colorado Supreme Court rendered those efforts illegal. Efforts to impose greater setbacks through the Legislature have failed.

One of the few remaining challenges lies in another legal challenge before the same court: Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That case challenges the commission, which is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, to prioritize health and safety over resource development. The high court is expected to issue its ruling in the next year.

Oil production has doubled in the state since 2013, and as of 2017, the state had 54,000 producing wells. Natural gas production has been stable for the past decade. But an increase in population along the northern Front Range means more people now are living near oil and gas facilities.

Those who live off the land in southern Colorado feel the drought’s reach

Every day, southwestern Colorado rancher Matt Isgar starts an increasingly complex puzzle. The goal is to find food for his 135 cattle.

“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango. “There’s no new growth.”

With the dark red bull’s eye of exceptional drought looming over the Four Corners region, Isgar has lowered his grazing standards. He sold off 35 cows to stave off financial bleeding, but there are still costs.

“We’re spending more material and labor fixing fences and hauling water, and we’re supplementing with protein. So every day is more expensive to operate,” he said.

Hot and dry conditions have become an insidious foe to Colorado ranchers and farmers. While dry summers aren’t new, a winter and spring with little snow and rain have pushed parts of the state to get drier, faster. June marked the third warmest on record for the entire state. Colorado should soon see normal monsoon moisture, but that won’t help Rocky Ford cantaloupe farmer Greg Smith. The legendary local crop grows out on the southern eastern plains, another region dealing with exceptional drought.


“Most of the pasture we used last year we’re not using this year because there’s no moisture,” Matt Isgar said of the land he ranches in Hesperus, west of Durango.

Smith saw the writing on the wall with the spring’s low snowpack and only planted a third of his 100 acre farm.

“It’s just brown dry,” he said. “A match gets started on fire and you have a prairie fire that may run for miles.”

There’s a cost to leaving fields empty. Smith still treats the soil to prevent weeds. And financially, even with fewer acres planted, he has the same bills to pay. Even his retirement plans got delayed. His intention to build a second retirement residence was torched by the Spring Creek Fire which burned more than a 100,000 acres in southern Colorado.

“Actually, I think it’s probably going to be on hold for a couple of years to see how the place shapes up,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be the same as it was. That’s for sure.

Nearby Baca County was the epicenter of the 30s dust bowl, so dryland wheat farmer Brian Brooks said he’s seen worse. His crop yields are down by about 5 bushels per acre. Prices have decreased slightly. His only saving grace at the moment was above average rainfall from last year that supercharged the soil. Farming advances have allowed him to conserve that moisture for his benefit now.

That future that will likely mean hotter temperatures which can prolong drought. Roger Pulwarty, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said hotter temperatures can prompt flash droughts, like in 2012, when the majority of the U.S. dried in just a few months.

“This idea of intensification in drought is what makes drought very unique … By the time it’s intensified, we’ve used up all the buffers we’ve relied on, [like] cheaper grain. And now we’re at the mercy of a very, very strong event,” he said.

It feels like that hotter drier future has already arrived for hay grower Ed Zink. For 70 years he’s lived on Waterfall Ranch, near Durango. He typically sees the namesake waterfall on the nearby rocky cliffs — but not this year. It’s a first for Zink.

“It’s not even keeping the rock wet. It is dry,” he lamented.

Zink watched the 416 Fire, which burned more than 50,000 acres, come within a half mile of this property in June, another first. Ample water rights for his property have meant little difficulty for growing hay this year. But 70 years ago, Zink said his property was situated at the edge of alpine forest. He could see desert to the south. That desert has started marching northward toward his farm.

“I don’t know how to exactly put it in perspective,” he said. “It feels like the edge of that desert has moved 50 or 75 miles in my lifetime.”

Zink’s neighbor’s wells have started to dry up, another change in his lifetime. Groundwater is on the decline, and the cause is not fully known. La Plata County plans on a comprehensive study of the problem. The picture adds up to a landscape of more people making due with less water.