Arapahoe County considers 6-month oil and gas drilling moratorium

Although it’s been a while since local officials in Colorado placed a halt on oil and gas drilling, commissioners in Arapahoe County on Tuesday will consider passing a six-month moratorium on new well permits in one of the state’s most robust places for energy extraction.

The potential drilling delay, which would give the county time to refine recent oil and gas regulations, comes as Denver-based Civitas Resources rolls out plans for 174 new wells on a stretch of land owned by the Colorado State Land Board just east of the Aurora city line, in unincorporated Arapahoe County.

Homeowners living near the proposed project, dubbed Lowry Ranch, are worried about the possible impacts of nearby oil and gas development on their neighborhoods, and, more notably, on the Aurora Reservoir — a drinking water source for Colorado’s third-largest city.

Dozens of people signed up to speak about the moratorium during a March 28 county commissioner meeting. There wasn’t enough time to hear from everyone and a vote on the halt was pushed to Tuesday.

One Aurora resident to make his voice heard at last month’s meeting was Kevin Chan, a resident of the Southshore neighborhood. Chan started a neighborhood Facebook group called “Save the Aurora Reservoir” that has since morphed into a grassroots effort of almost 1,500 residents.

When Chan first heard about the project on NextDoor, he felt blindsided, he told The Denver Post. The more research he did, the more concerned he became about the proximity of drilling near the reservoir, including truck traffic near water pipelines, the location of well pads and the amount of water being used.

“It’s a little bit too close from what I’ve been seeing on the news with the (East Palestine, Ohio) train derailment, and the latest (Keystone) oil pipeline that burst (in Kansas in December) and sent tar sand everywhere,” Chan said of why he decided to start the group. “I just thought that they would do a better job of preventing this and putting some distance between that and our reservoir, which we’re using, because we’re in a drought.”

Civitas says apocalyptic comparisons to recent industrial disasters in other states have little bearing on its future operations in Lowry Ranch. The company recently submitted preliminary findings from HRS Water Consultants Inc., which asserts that the Aurora Reservoir won’t be harmed because drilling will take place 8,000 feet below ground, and there are 5,000 feet of solid shale between the energy deposits and the reservoir.

HRS principal Dave Lipson testified in March before the Arapahoe County commissioners about the unlikelihood of contamination.

“The reservoir is in a different topographic setting than the proposed oil and gas pad,” he said. “If there is an accidental spill of fluids at one of these pads, the flow will go away from the reservoir.”

Beyond contaminating the reservoir, Chan and other neighbors in the area worry about the health effects of fracking so close to schools and homes.

Chan’s own child had asthma when she was younger and he found out that low-level ozone — which has been linked to oil and gas development — can irritate asthma and cause more inflammation, he said.

The state’s oil and gas industry is facing new rules cracking down on emissions as the state battles to bring the Denver area and northern Colorado into line with federal air-quality standards. Gov. Jared Polis announced in March that the state will develop “the most ambitious rule in Colorado’s history” to cut nitrogen oxide emissions, which form ground-level ozone pollution.

Colin Westerfield who lives in southeast Aurora in Tallyn’s Reach, about four miles southwest of the reservoir, said he was frustrated by the lack of information about the project. He calls himself a “middle-of-the-road guy” — not a radical environmentalist, but with a medical background, he found peer-reviewed studies linking fracking to cancer-causing chemicals, among other health effects.

“We’re told there’s nothing you can do. It’s going to happen. So Colorado has created a scenario where homeowners are not given the power to decide what is done or not done with their property,” Westerfield said.

The problem for Aurora, and by extension its residents, is that the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over drilling outside of its boundaries, regardless of how close to the city line the wells appear. Aurora implemented a one-mile setback for wells from a water source six years ago, but that buffer doesn’t extend into Arapahoe County.

“Its basis and purpose were to fortify existing protections of Aurora’s entire water system — from critical infrastructure to water supply,” city spokesman Michael Brannen said. “We recognize that any incident of any type upstream of our water resources could potentially have an impact.”

The city accepts requests to change the one-mile setback requirement, but Brannen said officials would have to consider many factors, including topography and hydrogeology, before granting one. Aurora’s Oil and Gas Division declined a request for an interview.

Arapahoe County Planning Division Manager Jason Reynolds told the commissioners in March that the discrepancy between Aurora’s one-mile setback from water sources, versus the county’s 500-foot setback, is a big reason the moratorium is being considered.

Arapahoe County passed a set of oil and gas regulations in November 2021 and Reynolds said the Lowry Ranch proposal is giving occasion to the county to refine them.

“Based on conversations with water providers, staff recommends a one-mile setback unless the applicant can demonstrate downgradient conditions,” he told The Post. “The goal is to protect water resources and storage.”

A spokesperson for Civitas, Rich Coolidge, said the company has no plans to submit applications for local permits over the next several months, so the proposed moratorium — assuming it is not extended — would not affect the timeline of the Lowry Ranch project.

Still, “we see the moratorium as unnecessary,” Coolidge said, adding that a mandatory halt increases uncertainty in Colorado’s business environment and could negatively affect the State Land Board’s share of rent and royalty payments derived from new gas and oil development. Those revenues help pay for schools in the state.

No Lowry Ranch well will be within 2,000 feet of a house, which is the minimum buffer under state law.

Communities in Colorado have a rich history of temporarily stopping new oil and gas drilling projects while they try to finesse their oversight of the industry. That was made easier in 2019, when the legislature passed a sweeping reform bill that gave local governments in the state appreciably more authority to control drilling activity in their midst.

Moratoria have been enacted in Broomfield, Erie and Boulder County, among other cities and counties. Several have been extended beyond their initial six-month limit. Any local regulations must be “necessary” and “reasonable,” however.

Dan Haley, head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said a moratorium “sends the wrong message to our industry and the people who work in the industry who work in Arapahoe County.”

Last year, Arapahoe County wells produced the third-highest amount of oil among Colorado’s 64 counties, with just over 5 million barrels, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. It trailed only Adams and Weld counties in production.

“Arapahoe County is a place that is no stranger to oil and gas development,” Haley said. “All of this can be done without a moratorium.”

Not all Aurora residents oppose the Lowry Ranch project. Jacquelyn Buky worries about inflation, which. she said at the Arapahoe County meeting, had driven her daughter, grandson and great-grandson to move in with her.

“Now is not the time to increase fuel costs by further limiting domestic production,” she said.

Aurora resident Charles Daldry said in an interview that he also doesn’t support restricting the supply of oil and gas because of surging energy costs.

“It just seems like a death of a 1,000 cuts at this point,” he said.

Daldry also worries, as an Air Force veteran, the increased cost of fuel will have an effect on military readiness.

“Our emergency supply of fuel, we’ve drained down to get our prices back down. …If things were really calm in Europe, I wouldn’t be as concerned,” he said. “But at this point, between the Russians and the Chinese, I’m not confident it’s a good time to be restricting the supply of any petroleum.”

But Marsha Goldsmith Kamin, a Southshore resident who moved to Aurora from Michigan less than six months ago, said while Aurora may have no say over Arapahoe County in terms of regulatory jurisdiction, Aurora residents still vote for the county’s commissioners.

“It’s not a ban — it is just a pause and I welcome that pause,” she said. “We elected you to prioritize the well-being of our environment and our community over their corporate profits.”

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