Environmentalist, oil & gas officials continue to clash

‘Fractivists’ not pleased with Guv
The Colorado Statesman

The debate over hydraulic fracturing this week appeared to run deeper than the controversial wells themselves. And if a good compromise is truly an agreement that no party is happy with, then the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission should be quite pleased with its progress.

The commission on Monday first unanimously finalized a rule that will require groundwater testing at wells both before and after drilling activities. It requires sampling up to four wells within a half-mile of a new well prior to drilling, and two more samples of each well between six and 12 months, and again between five and six years. In the Greater Wattenberg Area, a heavily drilled stretch from Northglenn to Eaton, operators will be required to sample one well per quarter section, pre- and post-drilling.

Commissioners pointed out that only two states have mandatory groundwater programs in place and no other state requires operators to take post-drilling samples.

“This new set of groundwater monitoring rules once again puts Colorado in the forefront of thoughtful and progressive regulatory oversight of energy development,” said Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC.

“This rule represents a strong, proactive step to monitor and protect our groundwater and is right for Colorado,” added commissioner Andy Spielman.

But the industry immediately responded with disappointment, pointing out that it already uses a voluntary monitoring program.

The alternate plan that the Colorado Oil and Gas Association had been pushing for would have sampled three wells up to a half-mile; had one pre- and one post-completion sample; deferred changes to the Greater Wattenberg Area for later consideration; been binding with respect to conflicting local regulation; and eliminated a requirement to install groundwater monitoring wells.

“The Colorado Oil and Gas Association supports a statewide groundwater baseline sampling program that continues Colorado’s leadership as a state balancing responsible energy development with environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, this new rule does not seem to meet that balance,” opined Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for COGA.

Shortly after COGA weighed in, environmental activists responded with an even more heated reaction. They have signaled out Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat and former geologist, for not pressing the COGCC for greater protections.

“We are disappointed that Gov. Hickenlooper’s administration failed to protect Colorado’s most precious natural resource — our water — by passing a weak and scientifically inadequate testing regime,” fired off Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “In Colorado, water is our lifeblood and is critical to our health, environment and economic livelihoods.”

Most appalling to so-called “fractivists” is that the rule adopted by the commission offers a “loophole” for Wattenberg.

“In Colorado, we expect to lead in protecting our natural resources and the health of our communities,” added Maysmith. “Anything less is a failure of leadership and a disappointment to Coloradans who expect more from Gov. Hickenlooper and his administration.”

State health and environment officials on Wednesday also announced the launch this summer of a study of emissions tied to oil and gas development along the Front Range. Commissioners will use the data to assess possible health effects.

Setbacks

The commission met for daylong marathon hearings that included public comment on Monday-Wednesday. After finalizing the groundwater testing, it took up an even more controversial issue over well setbacks.

The rule proposed by the commission on Wednesday would extend the setback standard from 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas to a uniform 500 feet; require operators to meet new measures to limit disruptions when drilling within 1,000 feet of an occupied structure; prohibit operators from drilling within 1,000 feet of schools and hospitals without permission from the commission; and expand notice and outreach efforts.

The COGCC voted 7-2 on the preliminary adoption of rules. Republican commissioners John Benton and Tommy Holton offered dissenting votes. The commission will meet again the week of Jan. 21 to give final approval.

“These are tough and far-reaching new rules that significantly reduce the effects of drilling for those living or working nearby while at the same time protecting the rights of mineral owners,” said Lepore. “We believe these collectively amount to the strongest criteria for setbacks in the county, will hold industry to a new standard and represent a national model.”

But the industry is livid over the likelihood of the new setback standard. It had proposed an alternate plan that would have set a standard of 350 feet subject to surface use agreements between owners and local governments; and set the high-occupancy setback at 750 feet.

Flanders believes the rule that the commission plans on adopting will result in increased urban sprawl and economic burden, thereby limiting development and job creation in Colorado. The industry and homebuilders have also raised concerns over decreasing land values. And mineral rights owners are worried that the new setback requirement will result in royalties plunging.

“We hope that policymakers will recognize the numerous economic repercussions that these increased setbacks will have on all stakeholders, including the oil and gas industry, farmers, ranchers, developers and all Colorado taxpayers,” stated Flanders. “Energy is the cornerstone of prosperity, and we are all heavily dependent upon the benefits of affordable, accessible, reliable energy.”

“The current contentious dialogue about oil and gas development exposes a great disconnect between our reliance on oil and gas resources and our willingness to support its production,” he concluded.

Environmentalists are also frustrated by the likely setback rule. They received an important endorsement this week from U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who offered rare testimony by a sitting congressman before the COGCC.

Polis has co-sponsored the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would remove the oil and gas industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act and require the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. Colorado already requires disclosure.

Because fracking employs the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase extraction rates, concerns have grown over contamination.

“I am testifying today because the outcome of this rulemaking is extremely important to the people I represent in the Second Congressional District,” Polis addressed the commission, noting that there has been an increase in drilling activities in Boulder and nearby Weld counties.

Polis believes local governments are capable of enacting their own rules and regulations, just as Boulder County and several other jurisdictions in the state have done or are in the process of doing.

“It’s not an easy job, and I don’t envy county commissioners… but that doesn’t mean that you should seek to do their job for them,” testified Polis. “While some communities have enacted such regulations based on community need, certainly not every county or city will choose to implement additional regulations. As a result, creating strong statewide rules as a statutory baseline is also important to protect communities across the state.”

Polis is also calling for a setback of at least 1,000 feet, suggesting: “While the newly proposed 500-foot buffer zone between operators and residences is better than current rules, it is not enough.”

Environmentalists cheered the congressman’s support, agreeing that the setback proposal does not do enough to protect communities.

“The setback rules advanced by the COGCC are a huge disappointment and a missed opportunity to provide assurances to Coloradans concerned about drilling and fracking near their backyards and school playgrounds,” lament-ed Maysmith. “The only ground these rules will break is the ground where drilling rigs show up next to Colorad-ans’ backyards and communities.”

Industry’s motions to strike testimony of residents

Furthering the fury of environmentalists is the fact that COGA — along with the support of homebuilders, cattlemen and farmers — submitted two motions to the COGCC to exclude testimony from residents who live near oil and gas drilling sites.

The commission denied the motions, which is the only thing it did this week to the pleasure of fractivists. The group first heard of the attempt to suppress the testimony last week. Conservation Colorado hosted a teleconference with reporters to draw attention to COGA’s move.

Matt Sura, attorney for Western Colorado Congress, a group of three West Slope community organizations, pointed out that the testimony of residents is perhaps the most important because they are the ones experiencing the impact. He was dumbfounded that the industry would try to strike that information from the record.

“It is height of irony that the oil and gas industry is calling citizens who have had their lives turned upside down by drilling as somehow ‘harassing and abusive’ merely because they want to tell the commission what has happened to them,” Sura said, citing the motions.

COGA had requested that the testimony of 15 witnesses be stricken. Health complaints include nausea, burning eyes and coughing. The residents had also testified to the impact on their lives from the commotion of drilling activities.

“It’s too late to save most of western Garfield County. But if the commission acts responsibly and promptly, we may save families and communities on the Front Range,” said Tom Thompson, a resident of Rifle.

But Flanders called the witness testimony lay opinion and hearsay. He said there were still many opportunities for them to offer public comment.

“We should all agree that these kind of proceedings must follow applicable legal standards regarding the admissibility of evidence and procedural safeguards to ensure a fair hearing,” said Flanders. “But to say that the citizens voices have not been heard or are being denied is patently false.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com