Independent review of state fracking rules ignores setbacks, disclosure, critics say

An independent review of Colorado’s oil and gas drilling regulations pertaining to hydraulic fracturing was released late last week, with at least one conservation group finding it noteworthy for what isn’t in the report.

Conducted beginning last summer by the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), the review praised some of the state’s fracking regs, especially after they were updated throughout 2007 and 2008 and implemented in 2009. But it also found plenty of room for improvement.

Dubbed the Colorado Hydraulic Fracturing State Review (pdf), the independent private-public review had been cited by some observers as a possible impetus for Gov. John Hickenlooper somewhat reluctantly agreeing this summer that the state oil and gas regulatory agency should draft a public disclosure rule for fracking chemicals.

That rulemaking process by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is under way, with a draft disclosure rule scheduled to be released and published in the Colorado Register (pdf) on Nov. 10. Hearings are slated for December, and COGCC regulators hope to have a rule finalized by the end of the year.

“The most significant piece of the STRONGER report is about what is not included,” the environmental group Western Resource Advocates stated in a press release. “The report does not address Colorado’s draft disclosure rule for fracking chemicals; a proposal to allow the oil and gas industry to self-regulate on its FRAC-Focus website; or the need to increase residential setback requirements from the current minimum levels (150 feet for rural areas; 350 feet for urban areas).

“These issues are vital to ensure the safety of all Coloradans, regardless of where they live, and some need to be undertaken immediately.”

Frac Focus is a voluntary website where oil and gas operators can list fracking chemicals, and operators in Colorado started using the site last spring. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is currently exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act after Congress passed the Energy Policy Act in 2005. Companies want to keep chemical ingredients secret for proprietary reasons, but many politicians, conservation groups and healthcare professionals contend the formulas should be disclosed publicly.

One of the revised rules Colorado adopted in 2008 after a long and contentious rulemaking process was a regulation requiring companies to keep an inventory of chemicals onsite during drilling and fracking operations and make that inventory available to regulators and healthcare professionals upon request.

“This rule allows government officials and medical professionals to investigate and address allegations of chemical contamination associated with hydraulic fracturing, while protecting proprietary information,” the STRONGER report states.

But the report went on to raise concerns about water supplies for fracking (up to a million gallons per well) and recommended a comprehensive state evaluation of available water resources as they related to fracking operations, which occur in about 90 percent of natural gas wells.

“Given the significant water supply issues in this arid region, this project should also include an evaluation of whether or not availability of water for hydraulic fracturing is an issue and, in the event that water supply is an issue, how best to maximize water reuse and recycling for oil and gas hydraulic fracturing,” the report states in its executive summary.

Setbacks – the distance between drilling rigs and homes, schools and other public buildings – have been an issue for years, with some saying they should be pushed out to 1,000 feet. Industry critics have long argued that the issue of setbacks was the one gaping hole in the revised drilling regs adopted in 2009.

“There is an urgent need to increase Colorado’s residential setbacks,” said Mike Chiropolos, lands program director at Western Resource Advocates. “The single most important thing that Colorado can do to protect homeowners in the gas patch is to increase the distance between drilling rigs and our homes.”

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