New rules could target water, buffer zones for gas wells

DENVER – Colorado’s gas-and-oil regulators debated new rules for water quality and drilling near homes Monday, as a Democratic senator warned she was ready with a strict bill in case the rules are too soft.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is adopting the rule changes at a time when the gas-and-oil wars have moved beyond their traditional rural battleground and into the Front Range suburbs, where many residents have rebelled against industrial operations near their homes.

The COGCC is considering a rule pushed by Gov. John Hickenlooper to require water-quality testing before and after a well is drilled and hydraulically fractured. Hickenlooper contends fracking does not contaminate groundwater, and he wants to pass the new rule to prove to Coloradans that the process is safe.

Monday’s debate revolved around how many water tests would be required. But at least one commissioner appeared ready to oppose a stricter rule.

Commissioner DeAnn Craig said the state’s existing rules on well construction are the best defense against groundwater contamination.

“Other people build buildings in the air. We build wellbores in the ground, and it’s with steel and cement,” Craig said.

Craig is a petroleum engineer who has worked for Phillips and Mobil oil companies.

Craig said she was concerned the state was asking the gas industry to pay for water sampling that should be the responsibility of landowners or county governments. The water tests would cost $4 million to $6 million “for basically public service because we’ve established with the new rules the possibility of contamination is almost zero,” Craig said.

The commission will not make a final decision on the water rule until January at the earliest.

A separate rule on buffer zones between wells and houses was scheduled to be debated today. The rule would require consultation with building owners within 1,000 feet of a proposed well.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said Friday that she has filed a bill to ban new wells within 2,000 feet of homes and schools, unless the local government approves. Her bill also would require water-quality tests before and after a well is drilled.

Carroll said she hoped the COGCC would pass a good set of rules this week.

“If they do not, I remain committed to working to ensure these critical issues are resolved in a way that best protects the health of our children, families and our environment,” she said in a prepared statement.

jhanel@durangoherald.com