COGCC director: Unnecessary FRAC Act would spread staff too thin

DENVER — When it comes to the safety of hydraulic fracturing– the “stimulating” of natural gas wells with high-pressure injections of water, sand and chemicals to free up more gas– Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission director David Neslin argues the state has it covered.

<em>Gas well (RTPeat, Flickr)</em>
(RTPeat, Flickr)

Federal oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Safe Drinking Water Act, as proposed by Colo. U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis in the FRAC Act, is not only redundant, Neslin said in a recent interview with the Colorado Independent, but it could force the state to divert staffing and resources from other environmental programs monitoring the oil and gas industry.

“I can’t speak for the commission on this, but I can say that from the staff standpoint, we believe that the current Colorado oil and gas rules responsibly address this issue and provide appropriate protection to our groundwater, the environment and the public.”

Neslin, an attorney, was interim director of the COGCC during nearly two years of contentious negotiations over the state’s new, more environmentally stringent oil and gas drilling regulations. He said the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is done on almost every natural gas well in Colorado, was taken into consideration in those new regs.

“Virtually all natural gas wells get fracked, so if we have to issue a specific approval for each of those fracks, we’re talking about a couple thousand additional approvals a year that we would have to be reviewing materials on and administering, and what would the ramifications of that be for our program and the other work that we’re doing?” he said.

<em>COGCC Director David Neslin</em>
COGCC Director David Neslin

DeGette earlier this summer said oil and gas production is the only extractive industry that is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the FRAC Act is needed to remove that exemption, put in place in 2005 by the Bush administration, so groundwater supplies can be protected with uniform regulations nationwide.

“I must say I’m very proud of my home state of Colorado for passing these new stringent regulations, but all the states have not passed regulations that are the same,” DeGette said. “The reason we passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in the first place is that we decided that safe drinking water is a national priority and that the standards should apply to everybody.”

Neslin pointed to several of the new state rules, which went into effect April 1, that deal directly with fracking. Rule 205, he said, requires operators to maintain a chemical inventory and authorizes the state to share that information with the Department of Health, county health officials and private health care providers who must sign confidentiality agreements.

Oil and gas operators, for competitive reasons, are concerned about the proprietary nature of the process. The FRAC Act does have provisions to keep the types of chemicals and their proportions secret. The state rules don’t require proportions.

”I don’t see how you can figure out if it’s a threat to the Safe Drinking Water Act if you didn’t talk about the percentages and concentrations,” DeGette said, “but I would also say that what the industry is concerned about — and I think rightly so — is protecting proprietary information, and that’s why we have provisions on the bill to protect their trades secrets and proprietary information.”

Some of COGCC board members don’t even have a problem with the FRAC Act. Trési Houpt, an oil and gas commissioner and also a Garfield County commissioner, told The Colorado Independent the federal regulation isn’t necessarily redundant.

“There’s a place for all of these layers of regulation,” Houpt said last month. “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 also agreed operator’s proprietary information needs to be protected.

“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.”

Neslin also pointed to two new rules — 341 and 608 — dealing with bradenhead monitoring and coal-bed methane as regulations specifically targeting fracking. The bradenhead is a fitting at the top of well’s cement casing that can be closed to keep fluids from coming up. Rule 341 requires operators to closely monitor the pressure.

Under the old regulations, operators were already required to encase the well in cement to keep fracking fluids from leaking into groundwater. Most wells are drilled so deep, especially in the natural-gas hotbed of Garfield County, that they are extracting gas in formations far below any groundwater wells.

But in southern Colorado, particularly Huerfano County, coal-bed methane production is a much shallower form of fracking, and residents there have reported dangerous buildup of methane in their homes and wells. Rule 608 deals with that type of fracking, Neslin said.

Neslin said he and the COGCC staff would rather see more study of fracking to determine what the problems with the process are and how best they should be dealt with, rather than a new layer of federal regulation. That’s a position he shares with Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat whose stance is counter to the fracking legislation proposed by his party allies DeGette and Polis.

“Speaking for myself and the staff, we would support further study of this as to how significant an issue fracking is,” Neslin said. “There was a prior EPA study on this, which some have deemed inadequate, and I’ll be honest with you, I haven’t read it so I can’t offer a personal opinion on that.

“But certainly it seems to me that a responsible way to proceed is the further evaluate, Is there a problem that’s not being adequately dealt with under the current regime? And if there is a problem, what is the most responsible and effective way of dealing with that problem.”

Dr, Geoffrey Thyne, a geologist and consultant for Garfield County and others, is one of those who feels the 2004 EPA study didn’t delve deeply enough into the practice of fracking, which he said has exploded nationwide in the last decade.

“There’s no other well you can put in the ground that gets an exemption from [the Safe Drinking Water Act],” Thyne said in an earlier interview, “and I can’t find the evidence to support an exemption, and I’m looking for it and I can’t find it.

“I would be ecstatic if industry would step forward and present it — a scientifically rigorous study that said it’s there. I’ve talked to fellow colleagues at the EPA and the USGS and no one’s seen it, so it’s really well hidden if it’s there.”

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