GarCo commissioners vote 2-1 to oppose DeGette’s FRAC Act

A grass-roots citizen’s group troubled by air and water pollution from natural gas drilling in Garfield County expressed “extreme disappointment” Monday when the county commissioners voted 2-1 to oppose more federal oversight of the industry.

Republican county commissioners Mike Samson and John Martin approved a resolution opposing the FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Chemical Awareness) Act sponsored by Democratic U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Jared Polis. Democratic county commissioner Trési Houpt, who has previously voiced support for the legislation, voted against the resolution.

U.S. Reps DeGette and Polis
U.S. Reps DeGette and Polis

“Martin and Samson made it a partisan political issue, voicing their concerns about the current federal administration, and that has nothing to do with the point at hand, and that is that citizens of Garfield County are getting sick from drilling practices and bad water and air,” said Leslie Robinson of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which had previously presented a draft resolution to the commissioners supporting the FRAC Act.

“Apparently the two commissioners feel like so what? They’re going to support the industry, who they feel are overregulated, and they think the state laws are fine enough to protect air and water, regardless of the fact that [the Colorado Oil and Gas Association] is suing the state to stop enforcement of those laws,” Robinson said.

Houpt also sits on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state board charged with overseeing natural gas production. The COGCC adopted tougher new drilling regulations last spring that require chemical inventories of hydraulic fracturing fluids be made available to emergency responders, but the FRAC Act would require broader public disclosure.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep into gas wells under very higher pressure in order to fracture tight geological formations and free up more gas. Critics say the process can lead to contamination of drinking water supplies, and the FRAC Act would remove a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted in 2005 under the Bush administration.

COGCC director David Neslin said the state regs are adequate to cover fracking, and that EPA oversight could actually spread his staff too thin if it’s required to permit each fracking procedure. The state’s trade association, COGA, has sued to block the new COGCC regulations.

Houpt previously told the Colorado Independent that the FRAC Act made sense as long as federal and local regulators weren’t overlapping efforts. She also said she expects fierce opposition, likely from the oil and gas industry, when she runs for reelection in 2010.

“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.”

Martin and Samson may see some political fallout as a result of Monday’s decisions as well. While neither faces reelection in 2010, there is growing sentiment on the Western Slope that the oil and gas industry should be more tightly regulated.

One recent survey found that a majority of the voters polled in Colorado’s Third Congressional District, represented by Democrat John Salazar, support the FRAC Act. That district includes Garfield County.

Meanwhile, despite charges by the industry that the new regulations are causing them to scale back or pull out of the state, Williams – the largest producer on the Western Slope, recently revealed it will be adding three more drilling rigs over the next year.

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