Panel Tries to Ease Fracking Fears by Enhancing Groundwater Testing

January 9, 2013
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The commission is expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal to extend the distance between drilling operations and residential areas, known as setbacks

DENVER–The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted Monday to toughen up rules on groundwater contamination in order to deal with a problem that has little to do with groundwater contamination.

The underlying problem facing the commission is public sentiment against hydraulic fracturing.

Several commissioners said as much during the hearing, stressing that they needed to approve a mandatory groundwater testing program in order to assure Coloradans that fracking isn’t poisoning their water.

“Like my counterparts here, I do believe that we have to do something on groundwater,” said commissioner DeAnn Craig. “We have to go ahead and convince the public that the oil-and-gas industry is not polluting groundwater. It’s not contaminating it.”

Commissioner Mike King noted the state has yet to document a contamination threat, pointing to the thousands of groundwater samples collected during the year-long voluntary sampling program in 2012.

“We know based on other 6,000 samples we already have that we don’t believe we have a wholesale problem,” said King. “So the commitment that this commission is going to make is: We don’t think we have a problem, but we’re going to look. And we’re going to look very aggressively. In fact, we’re going to look more aggressively than many in industry and some local governments believe is appropriate.”

Indeed, industry officials said the rules would unnecessarily hamstring oil and gas development. The program requires sampling of up to four water wells within one-half mile of new development sites prior to drilling. Operators are also required to take samples six to 12 months after drilling, and then again five to six years later.

“Colorado has implemented a number of successful basin-specific water testing programs, including a statewide voluntary groundwater monitoring program that began in January of 2012,” said COGA spokesman Doug Flanders. “A new rule should have built off of these successes without unnecessarily hampering energy development with excessive and unnecessary requirements.”

The commission is expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal to extend the distance between drilling operations and residential areas, known as setbacks. The current rule sets the setback distance at 350 feet, while environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have called for expanding it to 2,000 feet.

Commission director Matt Lepore drew laughs at Monday’s hearing when he said, “I am a firm believer that almost anything is doable, except agreeing on a setback distance.”

The commission called the groundwater-sampling program “unprecedented among other states,” adding in a press release that “[o]nly two other states have mandatory groundwater programs in place and no other state in the country requires operators to take post-drilling water samples.”

That statement comes in sharp contrast to the statement issued after the vote by the Environmental Defense Fund, which described the rules as “the nation’s weakest water sampling program.”

“At a time when Colorado desperately needs a signal that state officials are listening to the concerns of citizens and communities, it is unfortunate that the administration failed to adopt a rigorous, science-based program to adequately assess whether our groundwater is being protected,” said Dan Grossman, EDF Rocky Mountain Regional Director.

The group singled out the commission’s decision to exempt the Greater Wattenberg Area from the more stringent sampling requirements. The GWA, which includes Weld County and parts of Boulder, Larimer and Adams counties, is the most heavily drilled region of the state.

“And yet, the rule provides a major carve-out by requiring only cursory groundwater testing in the area,” said Grossman. “Under the carve-out, the odds of detecting contamination are significantly diminished, and the odds of tracking contamination back to a particular oil and gas well would be almost impossible.”

Commissioners argued that the GWA would actually be subject to more testing than any other area of the state due to the region’s large number of wells.

“On paper it may look like we’re going to have the least sampling available to residents in that part of the state, but in actuality I think it’s going to be exactly the opposite,” said commissioner Andrew Spielman. “With something like 11,000 wells in that area, we’re going to have more data in the GWA than literally anywhere in the state.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper has supported the commission’s work, saying that the industry needs a consistent statewide standard, even as some local governments have attempted to restrict fracking within their boundaries. Voters in Longmont approved a fracking ban in November, which has been challenged in court.

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