COGCC: Proposed modifications to setbacks and ground water monitoring rule fail to quiet conservationists concerns

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From The Pueblo Chieftain (Chris Woodka):

Proposed state rules for oil and gas drilling are getting mixed reviews. While the staff of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hails them as pacesetting in balancing the needs of industry and affected communities, some environmental groups say the rules don’t do enough to protect homes near drilling sites.

Public hearings will be Jan. 7­-9, 9 a.m. each day, at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place, Denver.

Two sets of rules were developed with extensive input from local governments, farmers and ranchers, the environmental community, homeowners, the energy industry, homebuilders, mineral owners, environmental health specialists and business leaders, according to a news release from the commission. The rules define procedures for setbacks, mitigation and notification of drilling activity.

“These proposed rules reinforce Colorado’s role as a national pacesetter in the comprehensive and progressive regulation of oil and gas exploration and production,” said Matt Lepore, director of the commission’s staff. “These proposals contain mitigation standards unprecedented nationally and mark yet another step forward in fashioning a model regulatory framework that strikes a balance that’s right for Colorado.” Environmental groups say the rules are weak.

“After months of hearing from stakeholders and thousands of citizens across the state who want greater setbacks, the governor’s proposal would still allow heavy industrial activity near our homes and families,” said Chris Arend, spokesman for Conservation Colorado, a coalition of environmental groups.
The groups want larger buffer zones and stronger groundwater testing near drilling and fracking sites.

“As local governments act to address drilling impacts near communities, these proposed weak regulations raise concerns of the ability and political will of the administration to properly regulate drilling and fracking in our state.” The greatest drilling activity in Southeastern Colorado is concentrated in Las Animas and Huerfano counties. Huerfano County residents have experienced impacts from drilling activity in recent years.

From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):

Environmental groups that worked with Shell Oil to develop a tougher before-and-after groundwater-testing rule are calling the state’s proposal a farce. Colorado’s water sampling “would be the worst in the nation adopted thus far,” said Dan Grossman, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund and a former state lawmaker…

Drilling hotbeds near communities in Weld, Boulder and Larimer counties need “at least as much scrutiny of impacts as the rest of the state, not less,” he said…

This week, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, charged with promoting the industry and simultaneously protecting Colorado’s environment, is set to vote on the new water rule along with restrictions on drilling within 500 feet of homes. COGCC staffers say they designed the water-sampling requirement to ensure that data exist to measure industry impact and to reassure increasingly restive communities.

However, adoption of the rule as currently proposed would mean that sampling would be less rigorous in the Wattenberg Field drilling zones north of metro Denver, where 17,844 wells exist near communities and companies plan to drill thousands more. It would mean water samples are not taken at facilities where, according to state data, companies have reported hundreds of spills each year since 2008 — about 17 percent of these contaminating groundwater with petroleum material, including cancer-causing benzene. For example, a spill was discovered recently by a state inspector in La Plata County — a leak of glycol from a ruptured hose at a gas compressor, which Maralex Resources Inc. covered with gravel…

Yet the COGCC’s proposed water-sampling rule focuses narrowly on deep well-bore casings, where few spills are documented. The spills harming groundwater typically are discovered by oil and gas crews working on storage tanks and pipelines. If the COGCC adopts a weak rule, state lawmakers could step in to beef up environmental safeguards. Some companies oppose mandatory testing at all drilling sites, let alone at production facilities…

State regulators don’t expect to win over all sides, COGCC director Matt Lepore said. He defended the proposed water rule, challenging groups’ assertions that drilling hotbeds north of Denver are “exempted” — because a different sampling program using existing wells would provide data. He noted that Weld County authorities, unlike counterparts in other counties, do not favor a more-rigorous water-sampling requirement. Oil and gas spills at tanks, pipelines and other production facilities usually can be detected by state inspectors, who already have a process for holding companies accountable, Lepore said. (The COGCC has 16 inspectors. Colorado has about 49,236 wells, up 31 percent since 2008.)

From the Aspen Daily News (Dorothy Atkins):

As the state reviews new oil and gas regulations, Pitkin County commissioners and staff argue that the proposed policies are not comprehensive and do not give the local government enough power in restricting development…

Under the most recent draft, which was released on New Year’s Eve, oil and gas wells would be required to be setback 500 feet from buildings, including residential, commercial and public structures. Also, oil and gas operators would be required to take samples from two groundwater sources near drilling sites to be tested for contamination.

Those regulations don’t give enough discretion to the local government, wrote county commissioners in a November letter to the COGCC. Instituting a statewide standard isn’t the best way to regulate development, because it doesn’t give the local government, which has a better understanding of the area, the authority to institute a higher setback in case local conditions demand it, commissioners wrote. If a setback is instituted it should be 1,000 feet or more and that distance could be reduced at the discretion of the local government, according to commissioners…

Kurt Dahl, county environmental health manager, said that the water monitoring regulations give too much leniency to the oil and gas operators and allow them to set their own timeline in testing the area without addressing what should be done if water is found to be contaminated. For example, under the proposed regulations, oil and gas operators can be exempt from testing water if a source can’t be found within a mile of the well.

“The general consensus is that the regulations were written very loosely,” Dahl said. 
“ … There is no discussion or follow up of what happens if we do find something wrong.”

Here’s a release from Conservation Colorado (Matt Sura/Chris Arend):

Days before the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is set to begin a three-day hearing on water quality protection and new rules about oil and gas drilling near homes, two of the oil industry lobby organizations, Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and Colorado Petroleum Association (CPA), have filed a motion to block people who live close to existing oil and gas wells from testifying at the hearing. The COGA/CPA motion, filed on Thursday afternoon, complains that the submitted written testimony from impacted residents is “harassing and abusive” to the industry.

“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,” Matt Sura, attorney for three Western Slope community organizations stated. “We call on Governor Hickenlooper and the COGCC to deny these shocking motions and allow these Colorado citizens to tell their stories.”

Twelve people from Garfield and Mesa counties have submitted written testimony. Their health complaints include becoming nauseous from the fumes from nearby oil and gas operations, burning eyes, coughing, and the disruption of living in constant dust and noise from oil and gas drilling. Many also have concerns that their property values have plummeted now that they are surrounded on all sides by oil and gas wells and production facilities.

Tom Thompson, a resident of Rifle stated, “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.”

There are also a number of witnesses that are living near oil and gas operations on the front range that have similar complaints of the noise, dust and odors of living within oil and gas industrial operations. COGA and CPA have requested that the testimony from a total of 15 witnesses be barred from testifying.

These witnesses are from a broad coalition of Colorado Conservation organizations including Western Colorado Congress and Conservation Colorado.

Dee Hoffmeister of Rifle submitted written testimony about she and her husband returning from a 50th high school class reunion to find a drilling rig had been erected on the property next door – about 700 feet from their home. “When we got out of our car, we were overwhelmed by a visible cloud of something that smelled horrible and had blown over our home from the well. Shortly after I got into our house, I passed out because of the fumes,” Hoffmeister wrote.

Some gas field residents, frustrated by the lack of action from the state COGCC or the state Health Department, have had to take extraordinary measures to protect their homes and communities. Dave Devanney of Battlement Mesa, started the “Bucket Brigade” that uses adapted five gallon buckets to collect air samples that are then sent to labs for analysis.

“We have been asking for the state to monitor our air quality for nearly ten years. We created the “Bucket Brigade” because we feel the state regulations and inspections are not adequately protecting public health,” Devanney stated.

Another witness, Marion Wells, felt she had to purchase her own noise meter. From her living room, she has documented and recorded industrial noise levels during nearby drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

As part of the rulemaking, the COGCC is considering air quality and noise mitigation requirements when drilling occurs near homes. However, in rural areas (larger than 3.27-acre lot sizes), the 500-foot setback would be waived simply by an oil and gas company demonstrating that they have mitigated their impacts “to the greatest extent economically practicable.”

Mike Chiropolos, Western Resource Advocates, believes the current draft of the rule means industry is dictating the outcome of the central issue in the rulemaking. Chiropolos stated, “Colorado families are getting sick, and they are tired of waiting for the state to act. The homeowner testimony that industry seeks to exclude shows why greater setbacks are needed. Does anybody besides the Colorado Petroleum Association think the State should ignore citizens and base its decision solely on industry’s wishes to continue drilling a stones’ throw from houses?”

Karen Trulove sold her home at a loss in order to move away from the oil and gas operations surrounding her home in Silt, Colorado. Karen is also hoping the COGCC will prevent other citizens in Colorado from having to endure what she and her husband went through. Trulove wrote in her testimony, “The point is, there shouldn’t be any drilling close to any dwellings. It is industrial activity and should be confined to industrial zones. It is inexcusable to put some people’s health
at risk when there is technology available to drill safely.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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