In wake of new fracking disclosure rule, activists seek still more drilling regulations

There was widespread praise Tuesday for a hard-fought compromise deal that led to Colorado’s groundbreaking new hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure rule, but environmental groups and some politicians have already started pushing for more regulation of the state’s booming oil and gas industry.

Colorado oil and gas regulators say holding ponds like this one in Pennsylvania cause much more groundwater contamination than hydraulic fracturing ( photo).
“[The disclosure rule] is an important step in creating the necessary protections for Colorado families, but there is more work to be done,” said Mike Chiropolos, lands program director for Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates.

WRA now wants the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to implement recommendations (pdf) made in October by a group called the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) suggesting minimum surface casing depths for oil and gas wells that are fracked.

It’s been suggested that the failure to properly case and cement natural gas wells to depths below the groundwater aquifer may have been to blame in Pavillion, Wyo., where a report last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) linked fracking chemicals to well-water contamination.

“[STRONGER] recommends that the COGCC work with stakeholders to review how available information is used to determine minimum surface casing depths and how those depths assure that casing and cementing procedures are adequate to protect fresh groundwater,” the October STRONGER report reads.

COGCC director David Neslin said on Tuesday that fracking chemical “disclosure is not our first line of environmental defense. It’s important for transparency, it’s important to build public confidence, but our first line of environmental defense is the integrity of the wellbore. It’s the work that our engineers and environmental staff do in reviewing the permit applications.”

Neslin has long said that disclosure won’t stop spills caused by bad cement jobs of wellbores, pipeline problems or leaks from holding ponds that store fracking and other fluids. On Tuesday he said another line of environmental defense is “groundwater sampling, baseline sampling that we require our operators to do, and the prompt response that our field inspectors make when complaints or allegations of impact arise.”

WRA, however, would like to see another rulemaking on both the STRONGER recommendations and “a mandatory program for baseline testing, monitoring and tracers to protect our water quality.”

“Baseline testing can help eliminate the he said, she said arguments over contamination so that we can focus on keeping people safe,” WRA’s Chiropolos said. “One sick person is one too many. The [COGCC] should continue to be proactive in 2012 in order to protect Colorado families and our water.”

There are approximately 45,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, which is in the top five nationally for natural gas production and top 10 for oil. Huge reserves in the Niobrara Shale formation on the state’s populous Front Range have sparked a wave of drilling speculation and local fears about the impacts of fracking.

“Colorado citizens are justifiably worried about the practice of fracking and deserve full confidence that the state is protecting the quality of their air, water and soil,” said Josh Joswick, energy issues organizer of the San Juan Citizens Alliance. Joswick was a La Plata County commissioner when local drilling rules were implemented in that gas-rich area of the state.

Increased drilling activity on the Front Range from Colorado Springs all the way north of Denver to the Wyoming state line will occur where far more Coloradans live than on the sparsely populated Western Slope.

“This [disclosure] compromise means there is no free pass for drilling firms,” state Rep. Deb Gardner, D-Longmont, said in a release. “There is now a greater degree of checks and balances.”

Calls for more COGCC rulemaking on issues ranging from surface casing depth to increased baseline water-quality testing to greater setbacks for oil and gas rigs from homes and public buildings will likely increase along with the drilling.

The WRA Tuesday also called for “increased residential setbacks from the current minimum levels — 150 feet for rural areas; 350 feet for urban areas.” That’s an issue that some observers say was never properly resolved during the last significant revision of the state’s oil and gas drilling regulations.

Those revisions in 2007 and 2008 were so sweeping – including some of the first rules in the nation dealing with fracking – that they required the approval of the State Legislature after months of sometimes bitter debate.

Colorado’s senior member of Congress, Democrat Diana DeGette of Denver, has been trying for years to compel the public disclosure of fracking chemicals at the national level. Her Fracturing Responsibility and Chemical Awareness (FRAC) Act would remove a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for the fracking process that was granted during the Bush administration in 2005.

She praised the new Colorado rule Tuesday, but also pointed to the Pavillion case.

“The fact that we have a proven case of a connection between hydraulic fracturing and the contamination of an aquifer underscores just how important it is that we take cautionary steps to protect our communities’ water supply,” DeGette said. “That is why I continue to encourage members of Congress to pass my FRAC Act, so communities across the country will have transparency in the drilling process as well.”

EnCana, the Canadian company drilling in the Pavillion area, has disputed the EPA’s findings, and Republican lawmakers and industry trade groups have questioned the agency’s methods and motivations.


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