Frequent pit liner leaks argue against Hickenlooper call for less regs

Speaking at an energy confab last week, Denver mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper continued to walk a fine line between coddling the state’s oil and gas industry as a former geologist – thereby distancing himself from Gov. Bill Ritter’s more hard-line approach – and trying to satisfy his more enviro-minded backers.

Hickenlooper thinks chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process should be disclosed to the public and he doesn’t think there needs to be a whole new rulemaking process for oil and gas drilling, as his Republican opponents have suggested.

But on one issue – the regulation of pit liners that hold produced water contaminated with chemicals in the fracking process – Hickenlooper seems to be playing with fire.

The Colorado Independent reported this last week: “Hickenlooper said he would expect the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission] to offer exemptions to companies where regulations were onerous and specific to one region of the state. In particular he criticized regulations on produced water and pit liners and said he would revisit those regulations.”

Then the Denver Post Monday reports there have been 31 spills of produced water from pit leaks since 2008.

The state’s oil and gas industry has been agitating hard for changes to pit liner regulations adopted as part of the state’s amended rulemaking in the spring of 2009. They want to be able to dispose of the liners on-site of drilling operations. Companies like Williams – the biggest producer of natural gas on the Western Slope – support those changes despite success they’ve had with recycling the dense plastic liners.

But a quick search of the COGCC site by the Colorado Independent shows a Williams’ pit liner leak violation earlier this month. “Holes in the pit lining exposed the ground below the lining. Pit has no system of monitoring and maintaining freeboard,” reads the COGCC complaint.

And the COGCC, charged with regulating all of these spills, essentially admits to a backlog of enforcement actions at a time when there is increasing pressure around the nation to step up enforcement of oil and gas industry drilling practices in the wake of the ongoing Deepwater Horizon spill.

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