Garfield County commissioner backs DeGette fracking bill

<em>Glenwood Springs, Colo. (1sock, Flickr)</em>

Glenwood Springs, Colo. (1sock, Flickr)

Gov. Bill Ritter may have triggered a party divide last week on the controversial gas-drilling process hydraulic fracturing, bucking fellow Democrat and U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette. But it’s a purely party line issue in natural gas-rich ground zero Garfield County.

Site of two days of highly anticipated Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Glenwood Springs, Garfield County is split on the issue of “fracking,” which DeGette wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Last week, Ritter advocated for more study of the process, which involves the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals deep beneath the surface into gas wells to open up tight reservoirs and free up more gas.

Mounting anecdotal evidence of groundwater contamination near natural gas wells nationwide led to DeGette’s FRAC bill, which stands for Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. Oil and gas industry officials have mounted a massive public relations campaign to kill the bill, which they argue is unnecessary because of state regulations and a squeaky clean 60-year history.

In Garfield County, scene of the most natural gas drilling by far during the boom that began in 2000, two of three county commissioners — both Republicans — have made it clear they oppose DeGette’s FRAC bill.

GOP commissioner John Martin, according to the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, said earlier this month that “you could put hydraulic fracking out of business” with the bill, adding: “We’ve got plenty of bills in place. It’s the enforcement that’s the issue.”

Fellow Republican commissioner Mike Samson said: “I agree with what John is saying, but I would like to have more information.”

Commissioner Trési Houpt, the lone Democrat on the board and a member of the COGCC, stopped short of endorsing DeGette’s bill, but did take issue with Martin, stating: “For the record, I don’t agree with what he’s saying.”

But in an interview with The Colorado Independent last week, Houpt, a controversial — at least from an industry standpoint — appointment to the COGCC by Ritter in 2007, was much more direct about fracking and the role of the federal government.

“There’s a place for all of these layers of regulation,” Houpt said. “We just need to make sure that all of the various areas are covered that need to be and that we’re not working against each other.”

She said the new more environmentally stringent COGCC drilling regulations that went into effect in April do require that an inventory of chemicals used in fracking be revealed to the state and made available in emergency situations, but she added that DeGette’s bill has more teeth than the state rule.

“So I’m not in disagreement with Diana DeGette’s language that requires more disclosure on chemical inventory,” Houpt said. “People whose property and lives are being impacted by energy development have a right to know what chemicals are being used in their area.

“At the same time, it’s important to protect proprietary information and the business concerns the industry has, so what she put together is probably a good balance and what we’ve put together at the state level could potentially be a good balance as well. We’ve created more safeguards for the industry than Congresswoman DeGette did.”

Overall, Houpt says the exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act granted under the Bush administration in 2005 doesn’t make much sense when every other industry must adhere to the legislation first passed in the 1970s.

“I have a difficult time having one industry have an exemption when others don’t, and I’m not quite sure how fracking ended up being an exemption in the Clean Water Act in the first place, but I heard at an oil and gas breakfast [recently] that one of the speakers didn’t believe that it would put fracking to a halt in this country,” Houpt said.

The city of Glenwood Springs, site of next week’s meetings where fracking will likely be discussed, along with nearby Carbondale and Pitkin County, have endorsed DeGette’s bill.

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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