Colorado conservation groups push Congress for tougher drilling regs

As Congress wrangles over what’s left of meaningful energy policy reform before the August recess, Colorado’s conservation community is watching closely to make sure onshore oil and gas drilling gets as much attention as the offshore drilling that led to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

A natural gas rig in Garfield County. Photo by David O. Williams

Provisions aimed at protecting the state’s water, wildlife and overall status as an outdoor recreation mecca are still in play in various bills still kicking around the U.S. House and Senate, but environmentalists are worried they’ll be stripped out or severely watered down as lawmakers rush to get something done on the energy front after the failure of a comprehensive climate bill last week.

On Thursday, Rep. John Salazar, a blue-dog Democrat from Colorado’s natural-gas-rich 3rd Congressional District and the brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, introduced an amendment that would strip out many of the most stringent aspects of a key energy reform bill still being debated in the House.

House Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall’s CLEAR Act (Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources) – introduced nearly a year ago by the West Virginia Democrat – would eliminate “categorical exclusions” by the BLM that allow oil companies to sidestep federal environmental review policies for drilling on public lands.

A rancher in southern Colorado, Salazar – despite polling in his district suggesting he’s off-basevoted against climate legislation the House narrowly passed last summer and opposes federal regulation of the controversial drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing.

Not all ranchers in energy-rich areas of the state agree with Salazar’s approach on agricultural issues as they relate to oil and gas production.

“The West is more than just potential gas and oil fields; it is a way of life for those who work, live or play here,” Moffat County rancher Wes McStay said. “For too long, those of us who make our living on the land have been subject to the risks from oil and gas drilling. It is time that Congress requires that big oil and gas companies use the best and safest practices available.”

Last summer, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act to remove an exemption for hydraulic fracturing – in which water, sand and undisclosed chemicals are injected into gas wells to fracture geological formations and free up more gas – under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That exemption was granted during the Bush administration in the Energy Policy of Act of 2005, which also allowed for categorical exclusions to speed up natural gas drilling.

An earlier version of Rahall’s CLEAR Act contained DeGette’s calls for public disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” because of health concerns related to the possible contamination of drinking water supplies by the process. That language is no longer in the Rahall bill but is in a bill introduced this week in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

The Senate’s Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act requires companies make proprietary fracking formulas public on the Internet, but it wouldn’t reverse the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption that blocks the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the process.

Major gas producers in Colorado want the state to continue to regulate the process and the feds to stay out of hydraulic fracturing, which they claim is safe and has never been proven to cause groundwater contamination. But a new report by the National Wildlife Federation suggests the process is far more dangerous than the industry lets on, including potential risks to emergency responders dealing with fracking chemical spills.

Produced water spills – sometimes caused by the improper storage or handling of water used in hydraulic fracturing – are fairly common, although industry officials point out that the percentage of toxic chemicals in the water is actually very low.

Still, a review of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) website by the Colorado Independent found a pattern of spills by just one operator in one Colorado county over the past eight years.

BP America, according to the state oil and gas regulatory agency, has self-reported 141 produced water spills totally nearly 1.2 million gallons of fluids in La Plata County since 2002. The most recent one – in February on Southern Ute tribal lands – spewed 189,000 gallons of produced water.

BP America’s Senior Director of Government and Public Affairs Lisa Hough said fracking is not to blame and can be handled by state regulators.

“We really think that the states have done, especially Colorado, has been a leader, and we think the state rules and regs have been sufficient,” Hough said in an earlier interview. “You have to remember there’s never been an incident of fracking, or a claim that a frack job itself, has caused any violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act.

“BP, we went through the process on the rules and regs in Colorado and in Wyoming and we support the states’ efforts and we think the states are the appropriate level to regulate those.”

A recent call by Republican state lawmakers to keep the EPA out of fracking regulation – no matter the conclusions of an ongoing study of the process by the federal agency – appears to run counter to mounting public sentiment that there needs to be more done to regulate oil and gas drilling as it relates to water use in what is essentially a very arid state.

COGCC officials this spring admitted to the Colorado Independent that enforcement of spill violations needs to be a top priority for the state agency, which has a backlog of investigations. Last week the COGCC announced the largest fine ever, hitting Williams with a record $423,300 penalty in the case of a De Beque man who chugged benzene-tainted water from his well.

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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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