Colorado: New groundwater protection rules still contentious

The proliferation of oil and gas drilling in Colorado raises serious questions about water quality impacts. Photo courtesy SkyTruth.
The proliferation of oil and gas drilling in Colorado raises serious questions about water quality impacts. Photo courtesy SkyTruth.

State officials claim new rules are pioneering; conservation advocates say rule-making ignored science

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Colorado officials are touting new groundwater protection rules as a pioneering step in the regulation of of oil and gas drilling, but conservation groups say the requirements don’t do enough to protect public health and water quality.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission this week approved the regulations after months of stakeholder discussions with the goal of protecting well owners and the industry. The rules require drilling companies to sample nearby water wells both before and after drilling. Only two other states have mandatory groundwater programs in place and no other state in the country requires operators to take post-drilling water 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 commission director Matt Lepore. “We worked earnestly with many stakeholders to develop a groundwater rule that provides strong protections and that we believe strikes the right balance among many interested parties.”

But the Environmental Defense Fund sees it differently, characterizing the new regulations as “the weakest rule in the nation for testing groundwater around oil and gas operations.”

“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,” EDF Rocky Mountain Regional Director Dan Grossman.

“Of the five states that have proposed or adopted groundwater testing programs, Colorado would be the first to place an arbitrary cap on which water wells get tested and allow companies to cherry-pick the ones they want to test, and it would be the only state to create a massive carve-out for the area with the most intensive drilling activity – precisely the area that demands the greatest scrutiny, not the least,” Grossman said.

Grossman was referring to the so-called Greater Wattenberg Area, a ground-zero for drilling along the Front Range, encompassing parts of Weld, Adams, Boulder, and Larimer counties.

In a press release, EDF said the new rule exempts the area, but state officials assert that the new rule beefs up existing requirements for groundwater testing around the wells. The old regulation required testing one well per section.

“Under the new rule you have to sample one well per quarter section,” said Ginny Brannon, assistant director for water and energy at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. The new rule also ensures more consistent long-term testing by requiring a restart after five years, Brannon said.

“It’s not an exemption, it’s a beefed up version of what was already a rule … The thing that makes it different, we already have a robust database for that area,” she said.

Grossman said the way the rule is written for the Greater Wattenberg Area will make it hard to determine the impacts of specific drilling activity to water wells in the vicinity.

“The statewide rule requires sampling of up to four water sources within a half-mile radius of a new well.  The rule’s carve-out for the Greater Wattenberg Area requires only that operators sample one water source in each quarter-section where a new well is drilled,” he said.

“Hydrogeology experts maintain that testing all water sources within even a small radius of new wells is the only way to provide a legitimate early detection system for groundwater contamination. This principle is even more important in the Greater Wattenberg Area, where intense development is impacting front range communities,” he added.

EDF also took issue with a cap on the number of wells to be tested.

“It arbitrarily caps the number of water sources operators are required to sample within a well radius, allowing companies to “cherry pick” what gets tested,” Grossman said. “Groundwater experts agree that, in order to have a robust program, all water sources near a production well should be sampled in order to account for localized variation in hydrogeology – as is required in the five states that have proposed or adopted baseline testing policies (Alaska, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia).”

According to Grossman, the rule has no requirements for operators to select water sources that are closest to the new oil or gas well or sources that are both up- and down-gradient from the new well. That means operators can potentiall ignore groundwater science and choose wells  for sampling pursuant to what is in the best interest of their company and their bottom line.”

Brannon said the new rule “gives preference to water wells closest to the drilling well head and requires testing of four wells within .5 miles of the drilling site. She said that requiring more well sampling would put an undue burden on the industry without providing additional safety benefits. She also emphasized that the new Colorado rule is unprecedented by requiring post completion testing five to six years after completion of the drilling. Additionally, Weld County has a groundwater testing program that  provides water well testing to any well owner requesting it, she added.

Grossman said the new state rule also fall short in setting standards for how  groundwater samples are collected and tested.

“The state rule does not require operators to follow any kind of consistent method or protocol for collecting and analyzing samples. Even the voluntary program touted by COGA has a robust sampling and analysis plan that is integral to obtaining reliable results. The failure to incorporate a detailed sampling and analysis plan in their rule, the COGCC again ignored science in favor of political expedience and acquiescence to industry.”

State officials said they were disappointed by the reaction from the environmental community, calling the new rule  a strong, proactive step to monitor and protect our groundwater.

“We have once again set the bar high in our assertive and judicious regulatory approach to oil and gas development,” said commissioner Andy Spielman.

“We have listened carefully and considered the views of many parties, including many citizens, and we believe this rule gets us to a result that rigorously protects the environment while addressing and incorporating the varied concerns of numerous interests,” said commission chairman Tom Compton.

Grossman said there’s simply to too much at stake to get it wrong.

“It isn’t that the rule doesn’t go far enough, it’s that it ignores fundamental scientific principles that are essential for protecting Colorado’s groundwater resources,” he concluded.

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One thought on “Colorado: New groundwater protection rules still contentious

  1. This was a fair and equitable decision based on scientific methods. What does Grossman know about scientific principles? He’s a politician!

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