DENVER — Frustrated residents of a Denver suburb say state law is forcing them to participate in a major oil and gas drilling project against their wishes, so they launched legal challenges with potentially significant consequences for the industry.
Backed by a federal judge, they have a chance this week to ask state regulators to block multiple wells planned within about 1,300 feet (400 meters) of homes in the city of Broomfield.
The dispute is a microcosm of a broader battle in Colorado, where burgeoning subdivisions overlap with rich oil and gas fields, bringing drilling rigs and homes uncomfortably close.
The battle is playing out on multiple fronts. Broomfield residents are taking their case both to state regulators and federal court. In the Legislature, majority Democrats are pushing legislation that would give the Broomfield residents and others like them powerful new weapons to keep drilling rigs away from their homes.
In Broomfield, about 20 miles north of downtown Denver, Extraction Oil and Gas wants to drill in open areas amid the Wildgrass neighborhood of roomy new homes.
A group called the Wildgrass Oil and Gas Committee says the wells are dangerously close to their homes, although they would be beyond the 500-foot setback required by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry.
They also argue that state laws is forcing residents who own the mineral rights under their property to lease or sell them to Extraction through a process called forced pooling. It allows the oil and gas commissioners to require all the owners of nearby minerals to sell or lease them to an energy company in exchange for a share of the profits.
Created a century ago, forced pooling was designed to prevent the proliferation of oil derricks. Landowners were scrambling to drill their own wells to keep a neighbor’s well from grabbing their oil. Forced pooling allowed a single well to gather the oil, and the income was distributed among the owners.
In Broomfield, some mineral owners are resisting.
“We did not have any interest in going into business with an oil and gas company,” said Lizzie Lario, a member of the Wildgrass group, who along with her husband owns the mineral rights under their home that would be included in the project. She said she did not want to participate in something that could result in spills, fires and explosions so close to homes.