Aurora lawmakers give preliminary support for safety easements surrounding plugged oil wells

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A pipe is capped off while undergoing a pressure test near Murphy Creek in Aurora. Closed well sites could be required to include easements to allow for regular concrete cap work, according to a city proposal. (File photo by Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

AURORA | Lawmakers indicated early support this week for creating easements around a growing number of plugged oil and gas wells, which would make it easier for workers to ensure those shuttered wells remain environmentally safe into the future, according to City of Aurora staff.

Located in the Denver-Julesburg geologic basin, Aurora has been an outpost of the oil and gas industry since the first well was drilled in 1917. Jeffrey Moore, manager of the city’s Oil and Gas Division, told the council on Monday that within city limits today there are about 110 wells that are producing gas or oil or are currently being drilled.

There are also 54 wells that have since been plugged — the process of pumping cement into the borehole of a well so that it can be safely abandoned. Given the number of wells that are planned and currently producing, Moore said there could one day be more than 400 plugged wells scattered throughout the city.

He also noted that, within the past year, 10 wells have been replugged, which is increasingly being recognized as a necessary part of maintaining boreholes and preventing the leakage of toxic hydrocarbons.

“In the past, we typically considered that the plugging of a well was the end of the story,” Moore said. “However, as time goes on and as the industry goes on, we’re learning that the plugging of the well is not always the end of the story. All wells are expected to be replugged at some point in the future.”

Moore said one study examined by the city indicates the cement and steel inside of a plugged well bore should only be expected to hold up for about 50 years. State regulators may also require an operator to replug a well if they plan to drill another horizontal wellbore nearby.

The process of replugging a well requires drilling down thousands of feet through the old cement plug and involves a battery of heavy drilling and pumping equipment.

Because of this, Moore suggested that the city establish easements of 200 feet by 200 feet surrounding plugged wells, where no permanent structures would be built. The easements would also need to have access to a public road, and no underground utilities would be allowed within 10 feet of the well itself.

“We have to have physical space around the plugged wells to site necessary equipment to replug them fully and safely,” Moore said.

That doesn’t mean easements would be left as vacant lots — Moore brought up parks, parking lots and agriculture as possible acceptable uses of land covered by an easement, and said the easements would count toward open space requirements for developers.

He mentioned Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield and Weld counties, and the Town of Erie as other jurisdictions that have already codified easements around plugged wells.

He said the city would offer variances in terms of the shape of the easement, as long as the area was approximately 40,000 square feet.

City spokesman Michael Brannen later wrote in an email that the city has worked with developers of projects that are in-progress to inform them of the presence of plugged wells, and that it is “undergoing a review to confirm if all developments which contain plugged wells are aware of such wells.”

Council members did not oppose the proposal moving forward, and council members Francoise Bergan and Juan Marcano specifically said they supported the idea.

Brannen said staffers are now working on an ordinance for the council’s consideration that would establish the easements but do not yet know when the proposal would be implemented.

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