Hickenlooper position on pit liner regs specific to one area of state

A spokesman for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial campaign late Monday took exception with a Colorado Independent blog post earlier in the day questioning the mayor’s recent statements about pit liner regulations related to the oil and gas industry.

A Hickenlooper statement last week at a governor’s energy conference was taken out of context and two separate issues related to the pit liner controversy were inadvertently merged. First, a little background:

Pit liners are large, dense plastic covers used to line pits that hold “produced water,” or water contaminated with some level of undisclosed chemicals used during the hydraulic fracturing process. That process injects mostly water and sand, with some chemicals, deep underground to force open, or fracture, tight geological formations and free up more gas.

Pit liners have been known to leak, spill and present a disposal problem when they’ve outlived their usefulness. Some landfills won’t accept them anymore, and the oil and gas industry – specifically the Colorado Petroleum Association – has been pressuring the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to roll back new pit liner regulations adopted in the spring of 2009. Companies want to be able to dispose of pit liners onsite of drilling operations, with fewer documentation requirements.

That is not what Hickenlooper was talking about last week when he said the COGCC should be able to offer exemptions to companies where regulations were onerous and specific to one region.

In fact, he was talking about a very specific part of southern Colorado where pit liners are not currently used on ranches where there is drilling activity and cattle regularly graze in the area and use the holding pits for drinking water. Pits would now be required and other expensive fixes are being contemplated for a situation that may not need fixing at all, the mayor and former geologist contends.

“This is potentially an example of where the commission could look at this and maybe this is onerous and maybe it’s not – maybe this is really needed – but that’s why some of the rules are promulgated by commission and some are statutory,” Hickenlooper spokesman George Merritt said Monday. However, he was not prepared to offer a statement on the industry push to roll back pit liner disposal regulations.

“I don’t know that we have enough information to take a specific stance on that. More of what John’s trying to get at is that under the rules there are specific items that we empower the commission to be able to take a specific look at,” Merritt said, again referring to the southern Colorado situation.

The area Hickenlooper was referring to is near Trinidad in the Raton Basin. On the other side of the basin, coal-bed methane production has caused serious concerns about drinking water in and around Walsenburg, where tap water has been known to ignite, but in the rural area of the basin, Hickenlooper says the industry has been working with ranchers for 15 years to make sure produced water is not a problem for livestock operations.

“Some of these [COGCC] regulations were designed around a particular area such as a basin in southwestern Colorado and they don’t necessarily have the same widespread application to the rest of the state,” Hickenlooper said last week. “Again, I don’t think that you have to go change the regulation. I think what you have where there is a regulation where there should be some sort of an exemption; let the oil and gas commission deal with it. They have that power.”

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