Permitting snafus up health risks in Colorado gas patch

Dozens of new natural gas wells are being developed closer to Colorado homes and schools than they need to be because state regulators, overwhelmed by paperwork, have approved permits with incomplete documentation.

One application for a well near a Poudre Valley school was approved despite dozens of errors, according to the Sierra Club and the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic, who last week released an in-depth analysis of 1,300 permit applications. They found mistakes in 181 of those permits, which ultimately could lead to the construction of more than 900  wells.

The errors by state regulators mean that some Colorado gas patch residents, including children in schools, are being exposed to elevated levels of dangerous air pollution with known health impacts. Recent air sampling by CU-Boulder scientists shows that current setbacks are at best the bare minimum needed to protect people from toxic drilling chemicals.

The air quality testing showed air samples from residential backyards in Erie and Longmont and near wells contained levels of chemicals as much as seven times above regional background levels. It also showed that emissions from oil and gas operations  along the Front Range are much higher than official EPA estimates — up to three times higher for methane, a potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas, and seven times higher for cancer-causing benzene.

The evaluation shows how state regulators sometimes simply rubber-stamp permits without having all the information they need to determine whether the proposed wells meet all the state’s health and safety regulations, including setback requirements, according to environmental attorney Matt Samelsen, who helped with the permit analysis.

State officials said regulators do not approve incomplete applications, despite the fact that the analysis by DU student attorneys and the Sierra Club documented those mistakes in black and white.

“At times, operators do submit incomplete and/or inaccurate applications,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “Those are not accepted and agency staff works diligently to ensure any application is complete, with accurate data, before proceeding.”

Yet on a detailed spreadsheet, the DU student lawyers showed that nearly 200 permits (of 1,300 studied) were missing critical details related to the well sites, including a failure to identify the number of wellheads at the operation, what zone the well site may be in, and any comments regarding the well site location.

In La Plata County, 5 out of 17 permits approved after August 2013 (when stricter setback rules were adopted) lacked critical information. In Garfield County, 10 out of 71 permits approved after August 2013, lacked critical information. Finally, in Weld County, 161 out of 792 permits approved, after August 2013, lacked critical information.

That means the permits are failing to inform the public and those directly affected by the well sites about the exact details and scale of the industrial development their neighborhoods.

“Absent or incomplete information regarding setbacks hinders the process of public commenting and this leads to less thorough and meaningful public comments … The amount of missing information in the Form 2As, approved after August 2013, makes it apparent that the COGCC is not adequately reviewing each permit for compliance with Colorado’s Setback Rules,” the researchers wrote in a Jan. 28 memo that details their findings.

The DU analysis was released as the Oil and Gas task force appointed by Gov. Hickenlooper prepared to meet Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 in Denver to discuss specific recommendations that could help beef up the state’s regulatory structure. Live audio of the two-day meeting will be streamed via a link at the task force website.

The DU study includes specific recommendations, including a call for more transparency, better public access to website information, and more extensive public notification. Some of the suggestions dovetail with ideas that the task force is already considering — including giving communities the ability to adopt regulations that are more strict than state requirements, as long as they don’t result in an operational conflict.

Another recommendation from a task force member would specifically make oil and gas drillers subject to local zoning rules by amending the Oil and Gas Conservation Act. Other suggestions include formation of a new panel to address conflicts between the COGCC and local governments, and new requirements to develop neighborhood master plans for drilling.

[Photo of Colorado fracking site via Phoenix Law.]