AURORA | As new oil and gas development moves quickly along Aurora’s eastern plains, city council and staff are trying to keep up with permit requests and the negative response of residents to drilling operations in Aurora neighborhoods.
Controversy is brewing not only about drilling standards, but about Aurora granting oil and gas rights on public land without a public hearing.
“I’m very disturbed these leases went from executive session to consent without public knowledge,” said Councilwoman Debi Hunter Holen, after hearing comments from residents.
Other council members said the issue is creating problems in the city because affected residents aren’t getting enough information as changes are about to unfold.
“Being councilor for Ward II where most of this is going on is an absolute nightmare,” said Councilwoman Renie Peterson. “The whole process is a real headache. We haven’t given our citizens enough time to know what’s going before we bring these items up to vote on.”
It’s a volatile time for a volatile industry. State officials are tugged between oil industry interests — trying to make extraction easier and cheaper, especially in light of a recent drop in crude oil prices — and residents backed by local governments who want more control and oversight to keep drilling as far away from homes as possible.
At a study session Monday, city council members voted 6-4 to essentially back oil industry interests, partially in reaction to new state regulations. The vote was not binding and will be subject to amendments when it goes to the council floor for first reading on Nov. 24. Council members Markert, Broom, Peterson, and Hunter Holen voted against the potential amendments to the city’s oil and gas code.
The measure would allow for taller vapor towers at drilling sites. The towers prevent wells from emitting environmental hazards, and taller towers are more effective. But the taller towers also draw complaints from residents who say they are more obtrusive and unsightly. The council bill also reduces fencing, landscaping and screening requirements.
“The state has been amending their regulations for the past two years. And specifically they have new air quality regulations, which require more mitigation at the tank site,” said Aurora Planning Department Manager Jim Sayre.
He said the city drafted regulations that only allow well pad facilities to be as a high as 20 feet for oil developer Andarko in 2012. The company at the time owned mineral rights in Aurora and had plans to drill, but that never came to fruition. He said those same regulations don’t work for ConocoPhillips, which owns six of eight well sites that were recently approved by city planners, with two of those approved sites in production. The company uses 31.5-foot vapor recovery towers to meet state clean air regulations, and has received waivers from the city to build them.
“This change in our ordinance is supported not only by ConocoPhillips, but by the state oil and gas commission, and the CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment),” he said.
He added that two years ago city planners expected oil and gas development to be much closer to urban Aurora, but now are finding it at the edge of eastern Aurora, and in farmland in unincorporated Arapahoe County. “Currently, fencing and landscaping are required with every well pad application. This makes little sense in rural settings,” he said. Under the new regulations, Sayre said the city’s landscaping, irrigation and chain-link fencing requirements would only be applied to any well pad site within 1,500 feet of a platted building, school or park.
Later in the evening, a dozen residents mostly from Adonea and Murphy Creek neighborhoods expressed concerns over the drilling amendments and the city leasing mineral rights to ConocoPhillips in nine locations. According to city documents, ConocoPhillips will lease 648 mineral acres in Aurora for $486,000.
“I’m for energy independence, however some of these are so close to our house,” said Elbert Scott, an Adonea resident concerned over a well that will be operating about 1,700 feet from the neighborhood. “I’m not comfortable with this aggressive schedule.” Other residents questioned why council had not looked into memoranda of understandings rather than ordinances for negotiating with ConocoPhillips.
Joani Cravens, a manager of real property services with Aurora, said if the city neglected to enter into a lease with ConocoPhillips, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission could force pool to gain access to the city’s mineral rights without its permission.
City council approved the leases 7-3, with council members Peterson, Markert, and Hunter Holen voting no on the measure.