The ballot proposal to undercut Colorado’s status as a major oil and natural gas producer is back. Well, sort of.
Two years ago, climate activists spent $1.87 million advocating for an initiative that would have required new oil and gas development to be located a minimum distance of 2,500 feet from occupied buildings and “vulnerable” areas—a term likely left vague intentionally. Fortunately, voters defeated the initiative 55 percent to 45 percent.
Despite that wide margin, the activists returned in early 2020 to gather signatures for a new oil and gas setback initiative. To the activists’ delight, Governor Jared Polis temporarily ok’d the use of remote electronic signature gathering, using new social distancing practices precipitated by COVID-19 as justification. When the Governor’s decision was challenged, the state Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling deemed the democratic end-around unconstitutional.
The relationship between environmentalists and Colorado’s ballot measure process has been rocky to say the least. Regardless of whether the oil and gas setback measure makes it onto Colorado’s ballot in November, the topic’s staying power demands that we asses it, yet again.
Advocates for these setbacks claim that current buffer zones are not effective in protecting citizens. However, they offer no scientific evidence to support that position. What tangible difference will this increase of more than 1,000 feet make? And why is 2,500 feet the magic number? Why not make it a clean 5,280 feet in honor of the Mile High City?
When the ballot measure topic originally surfaced, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released an assessment in 2017 stating that the studies used to justify the setback proposal “do not indicate the need for immediate public health action” since there is not “substantial or moderate evidence of health effects of communities living near oil and gas operations.” In other words, Colorado already has adequate setback buffers, and no evidence has been offered to adequately justify expanding it. In fact, some in other states have looked to Colorado’s current, possibly best in the nation, robust regulatory system as a model to consider replicating.
It appears environmentalists picked the 2,500-foot setback distance for political reasons. Extending setbacks to this distance would put 54 percent of Colorado off-limits to new gas and oil development—a certain threat to Colorado’s position as the sixth-largest state in natural gas production and the fifth-largest state in crude oil production. Further, an analysis by Common Sense Institute indicates that “89.42% of new oil production and 87.3% of new gas production, has occurred within the proposed 2,500-ft increased setback area.”
Putting aside the poor rationale for extending setbacks with proposed politically-targeted distances, it is imperative to point out the economic costs for drastically increasing the buffer zone.
It is estimated, according to the Common Sense Institute study, that this loss in oil and gas production would eliminate around 33,500 to 43,000 jobs in Colorado in the first year, and reduce state and local tax revenue from severance taxes, property taxes, income taxes, and sales and use taxes by between $825 million and $1.1 billion by 2030.
But let’s imagine for a moment there were good rationale to extend Colorado’s setbacks. In that case, the concern for setbacks should also apply to the health risks associated with other energy sources, like wind and solar generating facilities. Shouldn’t setbacks be applied to all forms of industrial energy development in a similar way?
One study found that individuals living in close proximity to industrial wind turbines experienced sleep disturbance, excessive tiredness, headache, stress, hearing problems, tinnitus, heart palpitations, anxiety and depression. Further, citizens in Westerlo, New York wrote a letter to Albany County officials voicing their concern over a roadside solar farm that created a dangerous glare for oncoming traffic. Yet there is little discourse around appropriate setback provisions for wind turbines and solar arrays.
Some studies have concluded that close proximity to high-voltage power lines can increase the chances for leukemia. Cancer aside, severe weather happens year-round and natural disasters related to tornadoes, hurricanes and other storms can seriously damage power lines and other electrical equipment creating highly dangerous settings. And if our radically changing climate is so volatile, as some believe it to be, we should anticipate even more severe weather changes and increased risk from power lines.
Why is there not a comprehensive setback policy to address these concerns? Because those are the politically-preferred energy sources. The discrepancy between fossil fuels, wind and solar energy, and power line setbacks presents a curious double standard. Failure to educate the public on this matter will result in even more misguided initiatives that threaten American energy security, and the affordable prices it is delivering to consumers.
The truth is, this double standard is unfair and hypocritical. It’s time that all energy setbacks be subjected to the same degree of scrutiny and debate.