When crafting new regulations around polarizing practices such as gas and oil development, the script is predictable. Environmentalists call for stringent rules and balk at those that do not go far enough in protecting air, water, lands or wildlife. Industry advocates decry any hindrances on their activities as burdensome, costly and a threat to jobs, and, therefore, the state economy. The regulatory body, in this case the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, sorts through the rhetoric according to its political make-up and in the best of scenarios, splits the difference to benefit the largest number while dissatisfying the fewest.
That is not what happened with the newest set of rules designed to protect groundwater in areas where gas and oil drilling occurs. Originally intended to provide clear-cut, statewide standards for ensuring that groundwater is not negatively affected by drilling – through leaks or contamination by drilling-related chemicals – the rules adopted by the COGCC on Monday are instead unclear and milquetoast in their effectiveness, despite industry claims that they are sufficiently onerous as to drive activity out of Colorado.
At first blush, the new requirements seem OK. They call for the testing of up to four water wells situated near a proposed gas-well site, with follow-up testing at various intervals after the gas well is installed. But environmentalists rightly point out that there might be a great many more water wells than four surrounding a proposed drilling site, and limiting the testing to drilling activity misses some potentially significant sources of contamination such as compressor stations, pipelines and holding tanks.
The rules also miss the mark set by Gov. John Hickenlooper when he called for them to be crafted, in such as way as that there be a consistent, statewide protocol for protecting groundwater. The new requirements do not apply to the Wattenberg Field northwest of Denver, where there are more than 17,000 wells and thousands more in the works. The COGCC justifies this exemption citing local testing requirements, but if the goal is a blanket rule, this one misses the mark.
The industry’s predictable position that the new requirements will make it cost-prohibitive to recover the state’s abundant gas and oil resources is unconvincing. It makes sense, though, for industry to make those claims. After all, it is in the business of making as large a profit as it can, and any impingement on that bottom line is unwelcome. It would irresponsible for the industry not to advocate on its own behalf, but the COGCC must be able to discern between legitimate concerns and those that are little more than rote.
In their typecast role, environmentalists are calling the new rules a farce. While they may fall short of being as effective as the COGCC is touting them to be, the regulations are not completely devoid of merit. By providing some baseline water-well testing, as well as some follow-up monitoring, there will be a growing body of knowledge surrounding how drilling affects groundwater. That is not a bad thing, but it is far from the broader good the rule could have accomplished.
Regulating is inherently a political process that must balance competing, if not polarized interests. It is not easy work, but that should not dissuade those engaged in it from making difficult decisions that might leave one party upset. If it means protecting Coloradans’ health and that of the state’s environment, there is every reason to spend significant political capital. The COGCC underinvested in its new rule.