An oil and gas company that recently applied to the state to drill 14 wells that would extend underneath Standley Lake in Westminster, which provides drinking water to 300,000 people in the metro area, withdrew its application on Thursday amid rising outcry over the possibility.
Highlands Natural Resources Corp. also dropped an application for 14 proposed wells under the nearby 420-acre Westminster Hills Off-Leash Dog Park, which is just north of the lake.
In a statement sent to The Denver Post Thursday afternoon, Highlands CEO and chairman Robert Price said, “Through the process of communicating with various stakeholders and upon further consideration of its development plans in Jefferson County, Highlands Natural Resources has withdrawn” its applications for all 28 wells near Standley Lake.
He said the withdrawals were effective for the “foreseeable future.”
The decision came just hours after the Post published a story online about Highlands’ plans.
Highlands’ plans to drill up to 31 wells near the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, which the company submitted plans for with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Oct. 18, are not affected by Thursday’s announcement.
The withdrawal announcement came as public comments began to pour in to the COGCC lambasting the company’s plans.
“NO No NO No No NO No NO!!!!!,” wrote one resident on the COGCC site. “This is public open space set aside for peace and public use. Plus every home … is on a well that works with water aquifers that would be connected to the drilling. NO WAY!”
Before the withdrawals were announced, Westminster Mayor Herb Atchison said the city was “scrambling” to come up with a plan to deal with the situation.
“We’re trying to figure out what kind of authority we have,” Atchison told The Post. “What rights do we have?”
The mayor said Westminster’s main concern is protecting 1,063-acre Standley Lake, which ranks as the metro area’s third-largest reservoir. Aside from providing most of Westminster with drinking water, Standley Lake holds water for Thornton and Northglenn.
“First and foremost is to protect the water for the city,” Atchison said.
On its website, Westminster said it “will always work to protect the interests of its citizens, its water supplies and open spaces.” But it also noted that the COGCC has the exclusive authority for reviewing and approving permit applications, “not the City of Westminster.”
Community after community in Colorado that has tried to put restrictions on drilling within their borders has found itself at the losing end of court battles, with judges consistently ruling that oil and gas development is the exclusive purview of the state. In 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down fracking bans in Longmont and Fort Collins, concluding that cities and counties do not have the authority to stop drilling.
The proposed wells in Westminster bucked a trend of oil and gas companies drilling primarily on the east side of the Denver metro area and highlight the high tensions that have arisen in the last few years between an industry eager to access valuable minerals that often lie under homes and neighborhoods.
But energy operators have been submitting applications to the COGCC for new wells at a furious pace in recent weeks, especially as the specter of a ballot issue that would severely restrict drilling loomed. That measure, Proposition 112, was defeated by more than 10 percentage points on Tuesday.
Tom and Sandi Rossman, who were walking their Alaskan husky Rowdy at the lake on Thursday, said they just moved from Crested Butte to Arvada’s Candelas neighborhood west of Standley Lake a week ago.
They weren’t happy about the news that they might be looking out over a drilling rig and a multi-well pad in the next few weeks. In its application to the state, Highlands said it wanted to begin drilling next to the lake on Dec. 17.
“You just see the sprawling lake in its natural beauty and this would detract from that,” Tom Rossman said. “It would be awful.”
The applications for both sites were submitted during a tumultuous week leading up to Tuesday’s midterm election, in which voters were asked whether they wanted setbacks for new oil and gas wells extended to nearly half a mile from buildings and water sources. Proponents of bigger setbacks say they are necessary to protect people from noxious emissions associated with drilling and fracking and to keep water sources from being contaminated.
Standley Lake reaches a maximum depth of 96 feet at its dam. It’s not clear how deep Highlands would have drilled its horizontal wells under the lake, but typically oil and gas wells go thousands of feet underground.
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