State ramps up rules for fracking wells

Gas, oil commission hopes to approve setback regulations before year’s end

New statewide regulations about setback distances and the plugging of abandoned wells near horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations are two issues high on the state oil and gas commission’s priority list, the organization’s head said at a natural-gas and oil regulatory meeting in Durango on Thursday.

Increased violation enforcement and baseline water-well testing also are new focuses of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as drilling into previously untapped shale gas and oil plays increases across the state, said Matthew Lepore, the state organization’s new director.

“Shale oil and shale gas are game-changers for energy balance in this world,” Lepore said. “But we need to approach it like we have one shot at this to do it right.”

The commission is the furthest ahead in work to create revised setback distances for natural-gas and oil wells. A stakeholder group that includes representatives from industry, an environmental group, local government and state government has met for the last seven months about the issue.

The group has yet to make much tangible progress on the issue, however, and it still is seeking proposals. The group is aiming to adopt a proposal by Sept. 14 that could be approved by commissioners later this year and implemented early next year.

Lepore admitted it was an aggressive schedule.

“We’ve spent seven months talking to stakeholders, it’s time to get something out there,” he said.

Current COGCC setback rules require drilling operations to be 150 feet from the property owner’s structure in all but high-density areas, where the setback is 350 feet.

The commission also is working to craft a policy that would require operators to work out the proper plugging of any improperly plugged and abandoned wells within a certain distance of any horizontal fracking operation.

There is a risk that the high-pressure injection of water, sand and other chemicals during a fracking operation could, in the case of an improperly plugged well, cause fracking fluid or gas to escape through the abandoned well hole, potentially causing air or groundwater contamination.

Locally, the oil and gas commission is working to monitor various places where methane seepage is occurring around the edges of the San Juan Basin, said Karen Spray, the Acting Environmental manager and the Southwest Environmental Protection Specialist for the COGCC.

The commission plans to expand its monitoring locations south along the edge of the San Juan Basin to the New Mexico line, which will be “helpful in an area that has pending development,” she said.

Last year, the oil and gas commission’s work in the area also included plugging one abandoned well near Redmesa, a project that cost $26,000. In total, the commission’s Plugging and Reclaiming Abandoned Wells Program plugged 12 wells and reclaimed five drilling sites across Colorado at a total cost of $630.7 million.

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