Using chemical tracers to make sure hydraulic fracturing fluids aren’t contaminating groundwater supplies may be off the radar of Colorado officials who regulate the state’s natural gas industry, but the concept is contained in what could be a precedent-setting plan crafted by the cities of Grand Junction and Palisade.
Asked earlier this month about putting a benign chemical in so-called “fracking” fluids as a tag that could then be traced back to a specific company in the event of contamination, David Neslin, executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), said there wasn’t much talk of chemical tagging in state regulatory circles.
“I’m not aware of anyone who’s doing that, and we went through an extensive rule-making last year and I don’t recall that being proposed as part of our rule-making process by any of the participants,” Neslin told the Colorado Independent.
But in a 2008 City of Grand Junction filing with the COGCC (pdf), a non-binding agreement between the city, the town of Palisade, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Genesis Oil and Gas calls for the “utilization of tracers during exploration phase to ensure [fracking] fluids are contained to hydrocarbon zones.”
Hydraulic fracturing is the high-pressure injection of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals into gas wells drilled deep into tight rock and shale formations to free up more gas. U.S. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-Colo.) wants the process regulated by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
COGCC officials counter there’s never been a confirmed case of fracking fluids contaminating groundwater supplies in Colorado, making newly adapted state regulations more than adequate to regulate the process. They also argue EPA oversight could be unnecessarily burdensome for the COGCC staff.
But community activists and environmentalists critical of fracking say there have been no confirmed cases of contamination – merely anecdotal evidence of tainted wells and streams – because regulators don’t know what chemicals to test for. DeGette’s so-called FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act would compel disclosure of fracking chemicals.
However, the Grand Junction watershed plan forged to protect the city’s drinking water supply from impacts associated with drilling calls for the use of green hydraulic fracturing fluids, full disclosure of all chemicals used and a tracer in case a frack contaminates groundwater.
In a Tuesday ProPublica story, which linked to the full, 60-page agreement (pdf), Grand Junction officials admitted the agreement may not have legal standing, but said it was relatively easy to get Genesis to agree to terms more stringent than state regulations require.
“There wasn’t a lot of resistance,” Grand Junction utilities director Greg Trainor told the website. “It may not be a legally binding agreement, but it’s a political agreement. It’s a very good template.”
Genesis has yet to file a Comprehensive Drilling Plan with the COGCC, but if the Grand Junction deal stands up once the state and federal regulatory process kicks in, it could be a model for other municipalities around the state and country.