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One Denver Suburb Aims To Be A Trailblazer For Drilling Oil In Suburbia

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a story about a community that's preparing to live amid oil and gas wells. It's a situation that's becoming more common as energy companies tap into new sources of fossil fuels. From Denver, Inside Energy's Leigh Paterson reports.

LEIGH PATERSON, BYLINE: Urban drilling is not new. Oil derricks have lined the beaches in Los Angeles and dotted Oklahoma City's skyline. But these days, that drilling is expanding into suburbia. Matthew Fry, a geographer at the University of North Texas outside of Dallas, knows it well.

MATTHEW FRY: I even have a jogging route that I'll run. So my wife will say, like, where'd you run today? And I'll say, I did the gas well route - right? - like, seven or eight gas wells on the way.

PATERSON: Fry says advances in drilling technology have allowed energy companies to access more oil and gas reserves than they could before. One place this is really driving development is in northern Colorado in towns like Broomfield outside of Denver. That's where a company called Extraction Oil & Gas hopes to drill 99 wells on four sites.

BECKY EARLY: I was shocked, and I didn't think it would happen. I didn't think it would get to this point.

PATERSON: I met Broomfield resident Becky Early at a packed rec center in Broomfield during one of many recent public meetings about the drilling proposal. Susan Phillips-Speece is on a task force the town set up to deal with new oil and gas. She says Extraction's wells would go in less than a thousand feet from her house.

SUSAN PHILLIPS-SPEECE: Literally in my backyard.

PATERSON: The task force has put thousands of hours into drafting new town rules, trying to make sure this project is safe. It wants the oil and gas company to monitor air and water, put its wells further away from homes and report all chemicals that could be brought on site. Task force member Susan Phillips-Speece again...

PHILLIPS-SPEECE: If they understand the preeminence of health safety and welfare, they might have an easier time getting what they want.

PATERSON: But Extraction has argued that some of these measures would basically shut down their project. Up on the 53rd floor of Denver's tallest skyscraper, Extraction's head of public affairs, Brian Cain, explains some of the things the companies proposing.

BRIAN CAIN: Things like electric rigs, which we introduced to this basin.

PATERSON: They also have plans to reduce truck traffic and even to remove dozens of old oil and gas wells. Cain says he knows suburban drilling is contentious.

CAIN: We understand the need to minimize those inconveniences and impacts to the community.

PATERSON: Inconveniences like noise. Usually fracking equipment sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRACKING EQUIPMENT HUM)

PATERSON: But extractions equipment enclosed in a high-tech, big, red box would sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUTED FRACKING EQUIPMENT HUM)

PATERSON: The company says it will also spend millions on landscaping to cover up its infrastructure. With all of these extra expenses and needing to negotiate with the task force, why even bother with Broomfield? Extraction spokesman Brian Cain again...

CAIN: We don't really get to choose where the natural resources are. Everything, you know, north of Denver is effectively a part of the Denver-Julesburg basin.

PATERSON: And more and more people are moving to that basin. Now, it's the state of Colorado that has ultimate authority over oil and gas drilling, and it has tried to deal with some of the impacts with rules on methane emissions and ground water testing. But for many in Broomfield, it's not enough. Susan Phillips-Speece wants her town to become a model for others.

PHILLIPS-SPEECE: We're being watched by the state as a whole. We're being watched actually nationally. And if we can set the bar of how it can be done properly, I think we've done a good job.

PATERSON: The city council will vote next month on these tougher oil and gas regs. If the state or industry decides they go too far, Susan Phillips-Speece says Broomfield is ready to fight in court. For NPR News, I'm Leigh Paterson.

(SOUNDBITE OF VINCE GUARALDI'S "CHARLIE BROWN'S WAKE-UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.