Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Steamboat Springs Thom Kerr, the interim director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told a group of about 80 people at the Routt County Courthouse on Tuesday night that baseline testing of groundwater quality is in the best interest of energy exploration companies.
“There’s no greater tool that any operator can have than baseline testing” to establish pre-existing groundwater quality before it begins exploratory drilling operations, Kerr said. “It’s not in our rules, but we push it every way we can.”
Kerr was in Steamboat Springs to meet with the Routt County Board of Commissioners in a public hearing during which local officials asked him to respond to 41 questions that pertained to an expanded set of conditions commissioners are contemplating adding to the review of new applications for oil and gas drilling permits.
Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush during the past eight months, and as long ago as 2010, consistently has advocated for requiring energy exploration companies to pay for frequent groundwater testing in order to establish a basis for protecting underground aquifers and domestic wells from possible contamination.
On Tuesday night, Mitsch Bush heard Kerr say that in some special circumstances, the Oil and Gas Commission has required baseline testing even though, as a whole, that program is presented to the energy industry on a voluntary basis. That seemed to be news to Commissioner Mitsch Bush.
“Let me be sure. You do require baseline testing for certain areas?” she asked Kerr.
“Yes,” he replied. “We take recommendations from local governments. We did it in the Raton Field (in southeastern Colorado), and we did it in the Piceance (Basin near Rifle). We think it’s a tremendous tool.”
The Oil and Gas Commission required baseline testing in wells drilled in the San Juan Basin near Durango because of the types of soil there and the presence of historic wells that opened up potential conduits to aquifers. In the most stringent cases, testing was required before drilling, again after a year, then at three years and finally six years after a well is drilled.
Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak asked Kerr whether the Oil and Gas Commission might commit some of the $4 million it maintains in its annual budget for an environmental response fund to Routt County so that it can establish a baseline-testing program. She received a qualified “maybe” in response.
“What we’d rather talk about is working as a partnership,” Kerr said. “We don’t see that as an unreasonable request, but we might be tight and say, ‘We want to do it under our control.’”
Kerr said that in Routt County, existing water wells and historic oil wells are a good indication of long-term groundwater quality.
“We look at water wells in a one-mile radius” of new drilling permit application sites, and “we look at the deepest wells,” Kerr said. “We also look for (reports of) water in the logs of oil wells that have already been drilled. The 299 (oil and gas) wells that have been drilled in Routt County are a great source of information.”
Spills and fines
Commissioner Doug Monger observed that the Oil and Gas Commission seems to rely heavily on self-reporting from the energy industry to reveal any problems like chemical or petroleum spills on drilling sites and asked Kerr whether he felt that practice was adequate.
Kerr made an analogy between his field staff and the enforcement of traffic regulations by relatively small numbers of patrol officers. There are instances, he said, when Oil and Gas Commission inspectors are made aware of minor spills at drilling rigs by the operators and, if they are corrected in a timely fashion, no violation is filed nor is a fine pursued.
During public comment, members of the audience questioned that policy.
Roger Steen, of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley, observed that across a number of industries, regulations backed by fines have proven necessary to gain industry compliance.
Stuart Orzach said the analogy to traffic offenses made him uneasy since his observation is that a majority of drivers are breaking traffic laws most of the time.
Orzach asked Kerr to elaborate on instances of spills that were large enough to merit a fine.
Kerr responded that there have been cases when energy companies allowed the chemical benzene to contaminate springs and received fines of $300,000 to $600,000.
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com