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On January 24th, 2024, Colorado’s Energy and Carbon Management Commission (ECMC) voted 4-1 to deny an application by Civitas for up to 18 new wells that were to be drilled on an existing well pad next to a residential community. The denial is the result of advocacy from impacted community members and local municipalities like the Town of Erie and City and County of Broomfield.

This is a big deal because denials for drilling in the Front Range are still an uncommon occurrence. More importantly, this decision will hopefully set a new precedent prioritizing the health and safety of communities over continued expansion of existing well pads.  

Impacts on Nearby Community Members

This pad location was originally approved in 2017, far before the passage of SB19-181, and allowed up to 45 wells to be drilled. By 2018, only 27 had been drilled on the pad. Though the operator did not drill the maximum number of wells, the site was still a major problem for the hundreds of families that lived in close proximity.  Earthworks and local community members documented and shared these issues with the state (Denver7 News story) as they happened in 2018.

OGI footage of emissions from the well pad during the drilling phase in 2018

Because these wells were approved prior to the passage of SB-181 and the subsequent rulemakings, the pad was never subject to setback requirements or any of the additional considerations new pads must address. This is despite the presence of over 100 homes within 2,000’ of the location. Since these wells were drilled, an additional nearly 100 homes have been built within 2,000’ of the well pad.

Civitas made the determination to move forward with drilling the remaining 18 wells approved in the original plan, only proposing some additional best management practices (BMPs) to reduce impacts on nearby residents. 

It is important to understand that BMPs do not make drilling and fracking in communities safe, they may merely lessen some of the impacts (residential drilling is never safe). Even then, there are a lot of unanswered questions about how effective these practices are at actually reducing harmful air pollution because the Air Pollution Control Division does not directly regulate many polluting sources associated with drilling and fracking. 

So while we continue to document emissions from drilling and fracking activities where BMPs are in place, state regulators continue to have no good answers as to cause, source, or remedy for these emissions

OGI footage of emissions from drilling operations on a different well pad in Erie in 2023

A New Precedent

There are two things to note about the Commission’s decision to deny this application. First, the Commissioners determined that they have the authority to consider applications for new wells on existing locations. This is important because otherwise the Commission would find itself rubber stamping any request to add new wells to any existing pad anywhere in Colorado, regardless of setbacks. Second, the Commissioners determined that the applicant had not proven that they met the requirements to drill within the setback boundary. 

The Commissioners denied this application but made clear that Civitas could still submit new applications to drill these wells that follow updated procedures and include stricter siting analysis. However, they were also very clear that Civitas would have to convince the Commission that the wells could be safely drilled near so many homes. A tall order but one that does not foreclose Civitas from attempting to take another pass at polluting nearby communities.

So while we celebrate the ECMC for making the right decision we need to make sure this decision actually sets a new standard: The ECMC must apply this same logic to all future applications for new wells on existing pads near communities, especially those that were originally permitted under less protective rules. 

Public faith in the new ECMC rules has steadily eroded in recent years as Front Range residents have watched empty fields adjacent to residential communities turn into drilling operations because of prior approvals and grandfathered permits. It is time for the Commission to truly realize the promise of SB-181 and ensure that no future Colorado communities have to endure the impact of nearby oil and gas development.