Broomfield poised to halt oil, gas operation until coronavirus crisis passes

Broomfield elected officials have directed the staff to write an emergency declaration to postpone work by Extraction Oil and Gas while residents are under a statewide stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.

Acting as the county board of health, the officials appeared ready late Wednesday night to approve the proposal, but decided to give the staff more time to draft it. They’ll meet March 31 for a final vote.

Under the order, Extraction would have to suspend what’s called the flow back phase on an 18-well pad in the city until coronavirus-related emergency measures are lifted. In flow back, liquids used in hydraulic fracturing are brought to the surface.

Health officials speaking during the public meeting conducted by phone referred to studies showing that harmful emissions, including cancer-causing benzene, are much higher during flow back.

What appeared to seal the deal for halting the work was concern from Jason Vahling, the Broomfield manager of public health and environment, that stress caused by the oil and gas operations could lead to complications for at-risk people if they contract the virus.

Supporters of halting the oil and gas operation noted that some of the nearby subdivisions are for people 55 and older. Older people and those with underlying health problems are considered especially vulnerable to COVID-19, the highly infectious disease caused by the new coronavirus.

“We asked Extraction to suspend its operations during this global pandemic and they declined for financial reasons,”  Guyleen Castriotta, Broomfield mayor pro tem, said before the hearing.

Castriotta and her fellow Broomfield city council and county commission members will convene again as the county health board to vote on the emergency order.

State Sen. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 19-181, said the legislation signed into law last year empowers local governments to regulate oil and gas. However, Foote said the law, which has revamped oil and gas rules, requires regulations to be necessary and reasonable, a standard that hasn’t been tested yet.

Extraction employees as well as state and Broomfield officials and experts said the company plans to use advanced technology designed to greatly reduce harmful emissions. The company, which wants to start the flow back in mid-April, said it won’t store any of the wastewater on the well pad. The liquids will be shipped by pipeline to a central gathering facility.

“I do not see any need for Extraction to halt operations or take other measures at this point,” said Jeff Robbins, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Robbins said COGCC field inspectors are still at work and the state will monitor Extraction’s work. The oil and gas industry is among the sectors considered essential under state and federal guidelines for the coronavirus outbreak.

Experts working for the city said they have inspected the well pad and the company’s equipment and plans. One person called Extraction’s improvements to the traditional flow back methods represent “a paradigm shift.”

Extraction, which has an agreement with the city for its oil and gas operations, likely would sue over an order halting its work, city attorney Shaun Sullivan said.

“And if the court found the order was not supported with sufficient legal or factual basis, it could find breach of contract and award damages,” Sullivan said.

Broomfield is pursuing action against Extraction for allegedly violating a city noise ordinance, which the company said its agreement exempts it from following. Council members and residents said past conflicts with the company over noise, odors and other complaints raised doubts about how Extraction would handle the flow  back.

Asked why Extraction wouldn’t consider pausing operations while people are being asked to stay in their homes, company spokesman Brian Cain said statements by experts indicated “our operations are without a doubt among the safest and most protective in Colorado.”

“There is no reason to stop producing energy resources we need at this critical time because of concerns that data have proven to be completely unfounded,” Cain said in an email.

Many Broomfield residents who called into the meeting said the risks of going ahead with oil and gas operations aren’t worth it with the health care system under stress as the number of coronavirus cases continue to increase. Several hundred residents signed a petition supporting the suspension of the work.

Judy Kelly (lives in Broomfield’s Anthem Ranch, a subdivision for people 55 and older. She’s worried about the potential effects on her husband, who has lung disease, and on other area residents who can’t leave their homes because of the statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Jared Polis Wednesday.

“We had talked about leaving during the flowback. We had always read that emissions are worse during flowback,” Kelly said Tuesday, before the hearing.”Now we feel we don’t have as many choices to protect ourselves.”

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