Pitkin County commissioner calls for more transparency in Colorado oil and gas permitting process

By David O. Williams
Real AspenDecember 7, 2011
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards called on oil and gas regulators this week to make chemicals public during Colorado's permitting process.

“State and local public health agencies should have the opportunity to monitor and address potential risks to air and water quality before they result in life-threatening emergencies,” Richards, the longtime Aspen politician, said in comments before Monday's hearing, where regulators defended what critics claim are watered-down hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure rules.
Rachel Richards

Regulators say the new regulations can be fine-tuned later to add more public health and environmental protections if necessary.

But the board of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) will take at least another week to decide on the issue after hearing more than 11 hours of testimony from Colorado residents, elected officials, oil and gas industry representatives and drilling regulators in Denver.

COGCC director David Neslin defended staff positions on “trade-secret loopholes” that would allow companies to claim exemptions for certain proprietary chemicals in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” mixtures.

He reiterated that a very small percentage of companies now voluntarily disclosing fracking chemicals on the www. FracFocus.org website, run by two intergovernmental agencies, actually even claim the trade-secret exemption.

Neslin also repeated his contention that full public disclosure should be just one regulatory tool in protecting public health and environment. In the past he told the Colorado Independent that the vast majority of spills are the result of holding-pit leaks, faulty cement jobs of well bores and pipeline problems, and that fracking itself has never been proven to contaminate groundwater in Colorado.

“[Fracking chemical disclosure is] only one tool. We have other tools that provide more direct protection,” Neslin told the COGCC commissioners Monday, according to the Associated Press. “The game is not over when you take action on this proposal.”

Fracking is the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and sometimes carcinogenic chemicals, deep into oil and gas wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up more oil and gas. Industry denies it, but critics for years have pointed to a growing body of anecdotal and hard evidence showing fracking can and does pollute groundwater.

A number of conservation and citizen activist groups in Colorado have called on the COGCC to strengthen proposed disclosure rules – first requested by Gov. John Hickenlooper last summer – by requiring “pre-disclosure” before a frack job occurs. The current proposal does not require pre-disclosure, and Neslin said that’s because companies often change fracking formulas right up until the moment the mixture is actually injected into the ground.

Current COGCC rules, adopted after a lengthy public debate in 2007 and 2008, require a list of chemicals used in drilling operations to be kept on-site and turned over to emergency responders and regulators upon request within 24 hours.

The cities of Grand Junction and Palisade adopted regulations requiring pre-disclosure of chemicals used in drilling within their respective municipal watersheds. They also weighed requiring chemical tagging so that any future pollution could be traced back to a particular company.

State officials have been largely dismissive of that concept, but the issue came up again during Monday’s hearing in Denver. Neslin said the COGCC board could consider adding rules for tracers and for dealing with other issues in a separate rule-making process in the future. But activists want the toughest possible disclosure rule now, especially as drilling expands into more densely populated parts of the state.

“When pollution occurs, we need to hold polluters accountable,” said Clean Water Action’s Gary Wockner. “Putting chemical markers in fracking fluids will let the public and regulators know who caused the pollution and who needs to pay to clean it up.”

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