Gas fracking grabs headlines, fills airwaves as Colorado braces for new drilling boom

Only Tim Tebow has garnered more air time and been more polarizing than the hot topic of hydraulic fracturing in Colorado over the past week.

A video segment leading off a "Colorado State of Mind" PBS show on gas fracking shows this controversial flaming faucet scene from "Gasland."
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) on Tuesday unanimously adopted a new rule compelling full disclosure of both hazardous and nonhazardous chemicals used in the oil and gas drilling process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

Environmental groups and citizen activists were generally happy to see the state’s primary oil and gas regulatory agency adopt what’s being hailed as the most transparent fracking disclosure rule in the land. But some watchdog groups were unhappy the industry’s so-called trade-secret loophole wasn’t eliminated entirely.

Colorado oil and gas regulators say holding ponds like this one in Pennsylvania cause much more groundwater contamination than hydraulic fracturing ( photo).
And other groups, including Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates (WRA), asked what’s next in terms of additional rulemaking on issues such as surface casing – which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said may have been one of the reasons chemicals used in fracking have been found in EPA test wells near EnCana drilling operations in Pavillion, Wyo.

The Colorado Independent asked many of the same questions during a panel discussion on fracking that airs tonight [Friday, Dec. 16] at 7:30 on Rocky Mountain PBS. The “Colorado State of Mind” roundtable show, moderated by Emmy Award-winning journalist Cynthia Hessin, features COGCC director David Neslin, Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the oil and gas trade group Western Energy Alliance, and Susan Perkins, an alternative energy attorney.

Neslin, who was dubbed the “Tebow” of the drilling regulatory set for salvaging a fourth-quarter comeback compromise deal on fracking disclosure, echoed many of the same statements he made during Tuesday’s rulemaking hearing.

“Disclosure is not our first line of environmental defense. It’s important for transparency. It’s important to build public confidence,” Neslin said on Tuesday. “But our first line of environmental defense is the integrity of the wellbore.”

An independent committee called the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) recommended in October (pdf) that Colorado regulators should meet with stakeholders and examine how state officials determine maximum and minimum surface-casing depths – or basically how far below the aquifer oil and gas wells should be encased in steel and cemented in order to “adequately protect fresh groundwater.”

Louis Meeks’ well water near Pavillion, Wyo., contains methane gas, hydrocarbons, lead and copper (Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica).
At Wednesday’s PBS taping, Neslin said a stakeholder meeting is being held today [Friday] to discuss the STRONGER recommendations. Neslin in the past has told the Colorado Independent that chemical disclosure won’t necessarily stop spills and contamination from an industrial process that can include pipeline and holding pond leaks and faulty casing of wellbores. EnCana in the past has been fined heavily for faulty cement jobs in Colorado.

On Tuesday, Neslin said the second line of environmental defense against spills and groundwater contamination, after ensuring the integrity of the wellbore, “is the additional regulatory controls and restrictions and requirements that we impose on drilling oil and gas wells and managing waste associated with the industry.”

But Neslin pointed out on PBS the differences in geology between drilling areas in Colorado and Pavillion, Wyo., where he said the jury is still out on whether fracking actually caused groundwater contamination.

The Canadian gas giant EnCana denies EPA statements that “… shallow surface casing or insufficient cement, which can create a pathway for movement of fracturing or production fluid,” may have been responsible for the Pavillion contamination.

“First and foremost, this claim is false for several scientifically backed reasons,” EnCana spokeswoman Lara Day told the Colorado Independent in an email this week. “The Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (WOGCC) evaluated well integrity records for the Pavillion field and found no problems.”

On the Colorado State of Mind show, Neslin also addressed calls for greater setbacks of oil and gas rigs from homes and public buildings and talked about the overall impacts of fracking on Colorado’s scarce water supplies – impacts that both Neslin and Sgamma downplayed.

Fracking was also a topic on writer, commentator and radio host David Sirota’s show on 760 AM on Wednesday. Highlighting Colorado Independent reporting on the topic, Sirota questioned the validity of the new disclosure rule and the ability of big oil and gas companies to skirt new state regulations as drilling heats up on the state’s more populous Front Range.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.

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