SENTINEL ENDORSEMENT: Prop 112 is the wrong answer to Colorado’s pervasive oil drilling problems

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Colorado has a serious problem balancing public safety and regulating the gas and oil industry across the state.

Proposition 112 is the wrong answer.

The measure seeks to increase the mandatory setback places like homes and schools must be from petroleum oil and fracking sites to 2,500 feet — five times farther than it is in some cases.

Most critics of the measure focus on the economic disruption the measure would cause. Pragmatically, the set-back boost would make about 85 percent of drill-able, non-federal land off limits for production.

Expectedly, the oil industry is apoplectic about such a limitation, saying it would cost the state billions of dollars in lost revenues and end tens of thousands of jobs.

It could.

But the real issue is public health. It doesn’t matter how many jobs or billions of dollars are at stake if the current setback of 500 feet for most homes is putting the lives of thousands of Colorado residents at risk.

It’s clear that gases and some chemicals released during the drilling, fracking and extraction processes are toxic to humans and other life. But what’s not clear is just how dangerous these substances are, under which conditions and at what distance from the source.

In some cases, 500 feet between a home and a fracking site may keep residents safe from toxic exposures or from their home exploding.

In one infamous 2017 incident in Firestone, that wasn’t the case. There, a house exploded and two residents were killed because flammable gas had unknowingly leached into a nearby house from an uncapped underground pipe, causing the deadly explosion. The well itself was less than 200 feet from the house, but beyond the distance required by city officials. The well was created many years before homes in the area began springing up.

More worrisome, Prop 112 backers say, are dangers associated with exposure to toxins released into the air or water during the drilling, fracking and extraction processes.

The dangers are very real and well documented. But the distance that ensures safety is not only unclear, it’s not universal. Proximity is only one aspect of a complicated issue.

When it comes to keeping people in homes, schools or offices safe from exposure, one size does not fit all.

And that’s the problem. In some instances, it could well be that 500 feet is a sufficient set back for a single home or convenience store, upwind from a traditional vertical well. Likewise, it could be that 2,500 feet downwind from a fracking extraction site to a bevy of homes and a school allows for widespread exposure to potentially dangerous levels of benzenes, methane and other dangerous substances.

Many serious problems for people and the environment don’t come from toxins, but just from dust, noise, traffic and even increased human activity.

When it comes to petroleum setbacks, one size does not fit all, and possibly any. There cannot safely be any inflexible set-back restrictions that make sense in a state that has myriad landscapes, mountains, valleys, wind and weather patterns, water tables, stream flows and endless types of private housing and public accommodations.

State lawmakers and officials must create a system that allows for local input and control over this highly technical and potentially dangerous industry. That way, the individual circumstances can be used to determine what’s a safe distance and under what conditions. Some petroleum companies have shown a willingness to accommodate this need without legislation, but the public can rest assured only after there are legal requirements.

Increasing an arbitrary, universal setback would punish an industry that carries a great deal of public risk, but it wouldn’t ensure everyone living or working near a drilling site would be any safer than they are now.

Only additional reputable research and flexible set-back regulations, allowing for local control, can keep state residents and the petroleum industry healthy.

Vote no on Prop 112 and elect state lawmakers willing to pass flexible regulations.