Colorado's Oil And Gas Regulators Must Now Consider Public Health And Safety After years of tension over expanded oil and gas drilling, including a deadly explosion that galvanized critics, the state is moving to tighten regulations on the booming industry.

Colorado's Oil And Gas Regulators Must Now Consider Public Health And Safety

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Colorado is changing the way it regulates oil and gas drilling, a big industry there that has led to a lot of tension. The governor is expected to sign legislation to make health and safety more of a priority for that industry. So what's that mean for the state's oil boom? Here's Grace Hood of Colorado Public Radio and NPR's Energy and Environment team.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Weld County is where 90 percent of Colorado's oil is pumped. And last year, that hit an all-time high. The region is home to oil companies, companies that truck water and supplies to well pads and companies that feed hungry workers, places like Daddy's Goodness BBQ.

MATT SMITH: We just had our largest order from an oil and gas worker.

HOOD: Matt Smith switched careers to start this food truck two years ago.

SMITH: If oil and gas leaves, we're gone.

HOOD: Smith worries that new mandates from a Democratic majority legislature will force companies to leave the state. Some in the county are already campaigning for a ballot measure to repeal the law. The changes are sweeping - the state must make health and safety a priority. It must appoint new regulators with environmental and public health expertise. Local governments will have more control over where oil wells go. And there are more rules to craft on things like capturing potent methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure. So the new law marks a starting point, not the finish line.

BRENDA DONES: The rules that are going to be written, that's where the concern is.

HOOD: Brenda Dones is Weld County assessor. She says Weld brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue from oil production each year. That money supports schools, roads and bridges. But now she worries that a backlog in approving drilling permits will only grow.

DONES: How long's it going to take to make sure that we can start approving permits again so that we can continue to get the revenue that we're expecting?

HOOD: Travel down the road to Erie in south Weld County, and you find a different set of concerns.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, good.

HOOD: From this playground, you can see an oil well pad in the distance. Across the street, Robin Goldsmith loads her aging terrier into her SUV. She's seen multiple drilling projects come through over the last decade, including that pad just 1,000 feet from her home.

ROBIN GOLDSMITH: The first time when they were close to us and drilling, you could actually feel the vibration in our house.

HOOD: Residents in this neighborhood near Denver worry about their health and safety when oil wells are drilled so close. Two years ago, not far away, two people died after an underground line from a well leaked gas and a home exploded. Goldsmith does not think the new law will prompt an economic slowdown.

GOLDSMITH: That's the oil and gas companies making sure that their investments are protected as opposed to the good of the people.

HOOD: Erie town trustee Christiaan van Woudenberg likes the new law. He says cities need to use it to create more distance between wells and homes. But when it comes to public safety, the new law lets communities do only what's, quote, "necessary and reasonable."

CHRISTIAAN VAN WOUDENBERG: So lawyers will decide what that means. And the problem is that these oil and gas companies have access to resources magnitudes of orders beyond a town council like Erie.

HOOD: Other environmental groups worry that some towns won't even try. Ultimately, it could be up to the courts to say how far communities can go to limit oil development. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood in Erie, Colo.

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