Residents of Aurora, along with environmental advocacy groups, are claiming that a proposed oil and gas development plan ignores pollution already existing in the area and that the plan should be denied by the state’s regulatory agency, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

The COGCC is reviewing a plan submitted by Crestone Peak Resources that evaluates the impact (both environmental and human health) oil and gas development would have on the surrounding area. The plan is called the Box Elder Comprehensive Area Plan (CAP) after Box Elder Creek, which runs through the land Crestone is intent on drilling.

The Box Elder CAP is only the second of three CAPs that the COGCC has asked for public comment on so far.

CAPs are intended to help hold oil and gas operators accountable for the negative impacts their drilling might have on wildlife, topsoil, water, and people living or going to school nearby their activities. The COGCC website explains that the state wants to incentivize operators to develop CAPs by “conveying an exclusive right to operate in the area covered by the CAP for an appropriate duration of time.”

The area covered in the Box Elder CAP is 37,520 acres located within the eastern part of Aurora, around the intersection of  I-70 and E-470. Crestone is proposing drilling and development within the boundary of the CAP through 2026. In its CAP, Crestone is proposing to drill 151 new well sites. There are 68 wells that are already within the CAP boundary and 143 wells that are in the area surrounding the boundary.

During the public comment section of the COGCC process to approve or deny the plan, 120 individuals gave their opinions. Of those, 116 individuals said they did not want the commission to approve the plan, citing their objection to Colorado continuing to permit oil and gas drilling projects during a climate crisis and the negative health impacts of oil and gas development.

Oil and gas production is a leading contributor to global warming, especially in Colorado, as well as a cause of negative health impacts for those living near wells.

When reached for comment, COGCC’s community relations supervisor Megan Castle explained that the commission will issue a “director’s recommendation,” which will respond to public comments, on the Box Elder CAP at a November meeting.

“The Box Elder CAP is scheduled for a hearing in November and as part of that for any CAP, or Oil and Gas Development Plan (OGDP), there is a Director’s Recommendation that is provided prior to that hearing,” Castle said in a statement. “In the Director’s Recommendation, public comment is addressed, along with the other aspects of each CAP or OGDP.”

While the CAP does address some of the issues public commenters are concerned about, environmental activists say that the CAP fails to address the full scope of the cumulative impacts oil and gas development has on its neighboring communities.

Cumulative impacts are pollution or social sources that compound with oil and gas production to make its effects worse for people living nearby.

Heidi Leathwood, a climate policy analyst for environmental advocacy group 350 Colorado, said that the CAPs try to regulate with blinders on.

“The trouble with using the CAPs to try to deal with cumulative impacts is that they gather some important data, but they don’t look at the existing pollution in the area, they don’t look at how the oil and gas emissions will interact with emissions from non-oil and gas sources, and they don’t allow for denial of a permit if projected emissions put the area or region above health hazards,” Leathwood said.

Environmental advocacy groups have been trying for months to get the COGCC to make concrete rules for evaluating cumulative impacts, which are explicitly a part of its official mission.

The text of the 2019 law redefining the mission of the COGCC states that oil companies should evaluate “incremental” impacts.

“The Operator will provide quantitative and qualitative data to evaluate incremental adverse impacts and beneficial contributions to each resource listed below that are likely to be caused by Oil and Gas Operations associated with the proposed CAP,” the text reads. “Data will include a summary of Best Management Practices or other measures the Operator will employ to avoid, minimize, and mitigate impacts to each resource.”

Leathwood explained that the COGCC has not been following the law.

“Under current rules, the COGCC can and does grant new permits even when an area already is violating health standards like ozone levels, or when the CAP will increase pollution in a disproportionally impacted community,” Leathwood said. “If we are serious about mitigating cumulative impacts, this is a flaw in the system.”

According to the plethora of documents Crestone submitting as part of its CAP, over half of the planned well sites are within disproportionally impact communities, [MAP] which the COGCC defines as “communities of color, low-income, or indigenous populations in the state that potentially experience disproportionate environmental or socioeconomic impacts and risks.”

(To read the COGCC’s full definition which includes specific thresholds, click here.)

The proposed 151 well sites are mostly over two miles away from houses or schools, but Aurora recently approved a housing development near the area.

“If we are serious about mitigating cumulative impacts, this is a flaw in the system.”

Heidi Leathwood

Civitas Inc., the company that owns Crestone and claims to be Colorado’s only net-zero oil and gas producer, set up a website that includes findings from the reports referenced in the CAP. In its reports, Crestone paints a relatively rosy picture of how it resolves the concerns from community members.

In these reports, Crestone explains that it removed proposed well sites that might have impacted local water resources and that it will prioritize using recycled water whenever possible in its production process.

The operator does not address the other pollution sources present in Aurora nor how oil and gas can contribute to global warming.

Crestone also says its air pollution will not exceed the federal limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has labeled the Front Range a “serious” nonattainment zone. Crestone’s reports were published earlier this year, before the agency downgraded the Front Range to a “severe” nonattainment zone because of the extremely poor air quality in the region. The EPA’s decision triggered a stricter air quality standard for pollution permits.

Neither Crestone nor Civitas returned a request for comment for this article in time for publishing. This article will be updated with a comment if one is provided.

Alexis Schwartz, a conservation organizer for the Colorado Sierra Club, explained that a 2019 bill passed in the Colorado state legislature and championed by Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) changed the primary mission of the COGCC to focus on protecting the health of Coloradans as well as the environment.

“SB19-181 explicitly requires the COGCC not only to evaluate but also address the cumulative impacts of oil and gas development,” Schwartz said. “Cumulative impacts analyses must take into consideration the current context of a proposed project. The submitted application does not describe the already poor air quality in the area in which the operation is envisioned. … There is no mention of how the additional pollution (in this already highly polluted area), multiplied many times over the life of the operation, is going to be addressed. This operation should not be permitted without a clear plan for addressing this problem.”

In its Box Elder CAP, Crestone claims that emissions of toxic chemicals in the air, like benzene and nitrogen oxide, will not exceed state or federal pollution thresholds and that it will have continuous emissions monitoring during all pre-production operations and through six months of initial production.

The Box Elder CAP includes a 2019 study, produced by Crestone, documenting that Crestone monitored air quality around its active oil and gas well sites. According to the study, in the 1,309 readings of testing for volatile organic compounds, Crestone only found one detection where the air quality was unsafe. Crestone explained that during this single detection the air quality monitor technicians smelled manure nearby and livestock was spotted nearby.

Peer-reviewed, independent studies have shown that oil and gas production leaks chemicals, like the ones listed above, that are harmful to human health, causing headaches, nosebleeds, and asthma.

Also, ambient community-run air monitors along the Front Range have detected concerning emission levels from oil and gas activities, even when operators report that their own monitors haven’t detected poor air quality.

One of the cities that took monitoring into their own hands after years of conflict with the oil and gas industry is Broomfield. Laurie Anderson, Broomfield City Council member, explained that she would often hear about differences between the city’s monitors and the operator’s monitors.

“We’re local governments, but industry should be doing this,” Anderson said. “They should know this data. What frustrated me is that industry is now saying, ‘We’ve got fence line monitors.’ So we’re seeing these huge spikes and a well pad fire once in Broomfield, and our third-party monitors are picking up these spikes in emissions but [the oil and gas company] Extraction says they found no spike in emissions. So whatever monitoring they have is not picking up the chemicals that are concerning to the community.”

Extraction Oil and Gas, which is now also owned by Civitas, started an oil and gas development project in Broomfield in 2015. Broomfield residents who lived near the project had so many complaints about noise and health issues that the city made these complaints public and enforced rules to make oil and gas production quieter and cleaner in the city. However, Broomfield is currently involved in a lawsuit with Extraction over its rules and citizens say there are still problems with Extraction’s wells.

A thermographer from EarthWorks filmed several wells around Broomfield last year and found they were leaking emissions or venting, which is illegal pollution in Colorado. The City of Broomfield conducted its own study and found that people living near these wells were complaining of health issues like nosebleeds, headaches, and asthma.

Anderson wants to share Broomfield’s experience with a massive oil and gas development as a warning of sorts to Aurora, but also as a guide to how the city can step in if citizens are unhappy with the operator’s actions.

“The project we’ve been dealing with is wrapping up, but it’s been going on since 2015,” Anderson said. “And it’s like we have all this knowledge of how we can do better and all this information and it’s 2023 and the Box Elder plan is still moving forward. I just — I feel for the Aurora residents. … You would think that by now you wouldn’t see this many applications for drilling so close to homes.”

That isn’t to say Anderson isn’t aware of the advancements the COGCC has made in regulating the oil and gas industry, but she did point out that the commission has not addressed cumulative impacts in its rulemaking yet.

“There are groups that are working to make progress here, but the COGCC just keeps on permitting,” Anderson said. “And you can’t say nothing has changed because at least some operators are being held accountable in some capacity. They are making some progress. But they really haven’t tackled cumulative impacts yet.”

One of the COGCC’s key rule changes since 2019 was enforcing a 2,000-foot setback rule that prevents oil and gas wells from being developed near houses or schools. Anderson points out that while 2,000 feet is an improvement, it still might not be far enough.

“The 2000 feet setback rule is good; it’s better than 500 feet. But even up to a mile you could be seeing the health impacts of oil and gas development,” Anderson said. “It’s also noise on top of air quality and other concerns. So once again down in Aurora they’re trying to sell this [as] it’s going to have minimal impacts on the community, but there are probably hundreds of homes that are going to be impacted.”

According to the Box Elder CAP, 18 residential buildings are within 2,000 feet of an oil or gas well. In the past, operators have been able to occasionally get waivers from the COGCC for this rule. In addition, 14 well sites are within a mile of an Aurora park.

“You would think that by now you wouldn’t see this many applications for drilling so close to homes.”

Laurie Anderson

A series of studies conducted over 14 years in California found that people living as far away as 2.5 miles from oil and gas wells experienced negative health outcomes, such as the ones described above, compared to control groups.

Sonia Skakich-Scrima, an Aurora resident who in 2011 founded What the Frack?! Aurora, in order to educate Aurora citizens about oil and gas development in their city.

“In 2011 I read in the Denver Business pages about oil coming to Aurora which was weird to me because I didn’t think of Aurora has an oil center,” Skakich-Scrima said. “I founded my group and held numerous meetings trying to educate the public about oil and gas and why people might be concerned about their health and safety when oil comes to town.”

Since 2011, Skakich-Scrima has repeatedly seen the issues that oil and gas production can cause for a city and its residents.

“Research over the past decade has shown very clearly that there are significant impacts from living within 1 or 2 miles from well sites, some show that even within 5 miles there can be disabling health issues that go away when people leave the areas,” Skakich-Scrima said. “They are clearly related to toxic emissions. Volatile Organic Compounds. Things like chronic headaches and nosebleeds. For some population groups: pregnant women, children, elderly, there are more significant long-term risks like low birth rate, birth defects, childhood leukemia, increased heart attack risk.”

In the Box Elder CAP, Crestone claimed that no negative health impacts will occur to Aurora residents as a result of the COGCC approving the plan.

“The operators claim that there will be no excess health impacts from these 151 new wells,” Skakich-Scrima said. “That’s kind of fantastical given what we know from health research. If they claim to have some new magic process to make all this go away they need to prove it. They need to do air quality monitoring in these neighborhoods to show that it’s not really a problem. But they’re not doing that.”

Because for two decades Skakich-Scrima worked as a medical researcher, huge packets of jargon-packed documents do not intimidate her. However, she is concerned that the general public in Aurora is not getting enough information about Box Elder.

“The main issue is that state and local governments are not providing enough notice about these wells that are coming in,” Skakich-Scrima said. “So people don’t even know about them. People don’t know when they’re coming in, whether they are detrimental to their health or not, all of these things. With the Box Elder project, the state is using a new process to review all the proposed wells at one time and that drastically cuts out public input. Normally they review one well at a time and have public comment periods and public hearings. With just one public hearing and comment period there’s just one opportunity for people to get engaged with the state on this issue and most people have no idea what’s occurring.”

This worries Skakich-Scrima because she knows how the oil and gas industry can flex their financial muscles in Colorado.

“Big oil and gas can present a lot of information in P.R. that simply ain’t so,” Skakich-Scrima said.

Skakich-Scrima has plenty of reasons why she is concerned over the Box Elder plan. One of the big ones is how much water will be used throughout the life of the plan.

Kate Christensen, 350 Colorado’s Beyond Fracking coordinator, explained that the amount of air pollution and water usage from this project puts unneeded stress on a polluted and dry part of the U.S.

“The way I look at it is we know that burning fossil fuels causes climate change,” Christensen said. “We have seen devastating impacts of climate change-related events. There have been so many in the past few weeks. Puerto Rico, Pakistan, Alaska — this is obviously detrimental to public health, safety, welfare, and the environment. So, the fact that these CAPs are looking at hundreds of wells in the nonattainment zone which is admissions for at least the next 40 years makes no sense. When I talk to regulators about slowing down permitting in the nonattainment zone to help address ozone and climate change they look at me like I’m crazy. They tell me their job is to permit pollution. And that’s what they’re doing. But the city of Aurora has been asking residents not to water their lawns to do everything to conserve which I am all on board for but then they’re totally supporting this giant drilling plan which would use huge amounts of water. That seems again like it makes no sense.”

Christensen and Skakich-Scrima both referenced water-saving measures enacted by the Aurora City Council. In September, Aurora passed an ordinance intended to save water that outlaws turf and restricts the grass residents can have in their yard. The city has also asked residents to water their lawns less often.

According to the Box Elder CAP Crestone plans on using 490,000 barrels of water per well from drilling to production. By COGCC definition a barrel of water is equal to 42 gallons of water. This means the 151 new oil and gas wells in the Box Elder CAP will use a total of 3.1 billion gallons of water by 2026. To put that in perspective, the average American family uses 109,500 gallons of water per year.

The CAP does say that Crestone will aim to use “reclaimed water” when available, but if it’s not available it is then allowed to use local freshwater.

The COGCC will hold a hearing in November about the Box Elder CAP and will respond to public comments before the start of this hearing.