Why This Commonsense Oil and Gas Bill Is Good For Colorado’s Children

There’s nothing more important than keeping our children safe and healthy, especially when they’re at school. That’s why we encourage kids to get exercise and play outside during recess; why the 1,000-foot federal drug-free school zone exists; and why in Pueblo, Aurora and Denver it’s illegal to sell, grow, transfer or distribute marijuana within 1,000 feet of school property.

So why shouldn’t oil and gas facilities also be 1,000 feet from school property?

Oil and gas facilities in the background of the Northridge High School Graduation. The facilities are just a few hundred feet away from the football field.

Unfortunately, in Colorado this is not the case. Dozens of schools throughout the state have oil and gas wells or storage facilities in close proximity to the places that our children are playing sports, learning, and playing outside.

Current law in Colorado states that oil and gas facilities must be at least 1,000 feet away from any “high-occupancy building” (including schools). However, the definition only includes school buildings, rather than school property, which allows the 1,000 foot setback to be measured from the brick-and-mortar school building rather than from the property line. This leaves sports fields, modular classrooms, playgrounds, and other outdoor areas well within 1,000 feet of the heavy industrial activity of oil and gas facilities.

It only takes a few real-world examples to understand why this is such a critical bill. One school affected by this issue is Bella Romero Academy in Greeley. In March 2017, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved a permit for 25 wells that would be only 600 feet from the school’s property line. This middle school is 82 percent Latino and 5 percent African American, and 92 percent of its students come from low-income households. These factors qualify the area served by the school as a high-risk environmental justice community.

On March 10, 2017, Extraction Oil and Gas Inc. received permission from the COGCC for an oil and gas location only 315 feet from the Bella Romero Academy’s soccer fields

Take a look at how close oil and gas wells are to several other school playgrounds and football fields in the our Google Earth video below:

Luckily, Colorado state Representative Mike Foote has introduced a simple bill that addresses this issue and clarifies that the intention of the setback rule is to keep all of school property at least 1,000 feet away from oil and gas industrial activity. This will mean that the distance will be measured from the property line, rather than from the school building.

This clarification makes sense because unlike other high-occupancy buildings, such as hospitals, the occupants of a school are not restricted to the building. Children spend many hours outside each week, all year-round, playing, attending sporting events and practices, eating lunch, participating in extracurricular activities, and attending class on all parts of the school property.

The bottom line is that oil and gas facilities can be dangerous and can cause health problems for our children. Oil and natural gas facilities release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants which can cause respiratory problems. On the Front Range, roughly 50 percent of all VOC pollution comes from oil and natural gas facilities. If there’s any evidence at all that exposure to these facilities might be harmful to our children, shouldn’t we take the proper measures to ensure their safety? That’s what this bill does.

It’s also important to note that ultimately, if this bill passes, it will have little impact on the oil and gas industry. This is because new modern technology has allowed companies to extract oil and gas from up to three miles away from a well pad using a technique called “directional drilling.” So, the change that this bill would enact wouldn’t affect the ability of the industry or mineral rights owners to extract the resources that they seek, even on large school properties in rural Colorado.

Photo: Kathleen Lavine | Denver Business Journal

Safety technology on drilling platforms has come a long way, but accidents still happen. A recent well blowout in Colorado sprayed a mist of oil, gas, and drilling wastewater that covered an area 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide. In April 2014, a storage tank exploded 1,800 feet away from Legacy Elementary school in Weld County, causing students and teachers to shelter in place. What if a school playground had been coated in that toxic mist? If we continue to allow drilling operations to be so close to our schools, it’s only a matter of time before such worries become realities. While relatively uncommon, the risk is not worth the consequences.

Our children are vulnerable, and they are the ones who stand to lose the most if this bill doesn’t pass. The industry doesn’t need protecting, but our kids do.