Proposed changes to oil and gas regulations don't address Routt County's main concern

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Oil & gas issues in Routt County

— The state commission charged with overseeing the regulation of oil and gas wells in Colorado is unlikely to heed Routt County’s stance on safeguarding groundwater and domestic water wells next week when it meets in Denver to establish new rules for the energy industry.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will conduct public hearings Monday to Wednesday to consider a set of new rules meant to address the potential impacts of energy exploration within close proximity to homes and the potential pollution of drinking water supplies.

A news release issued Monday by the Colorado Department of Natural Resources said the current rules, which require drilling setbacks from homes of 350 feet in urban areas and 150 feet in rural areas, would increase to 500 feet statewide under the proposed changes.

The release also pointed out that the new Rule 609, which would require oil and gas drillers to sample water wells near drilling sites before and after drilling activities, would make Colorado the only state to take that step.

However, Routt County was pushing for more protections for water wells early this winter when County Attorney John Merrill and Assistant County Attorney Erick Knaus filed a proposal to modify Rule 609. It would have required energy companies to take water samples to check for pollutants in new monitoring wells between the well pad and domestic wells.

Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman confirmed Wednesday that the latest version of Rule 609 does not reflect the wishes of Routt County.

“The COGCC staff's proposed groundwater rule, as it stands now, does not contemplate the issue of up- or down-gradient for water well sampling,” Hartman wrote in an email.

Knaus restated Wednesday Routt County’s position that in order for water-quality monitoring wells to protect domestic wells and underground aquifers, they must be placed down the gradient between oil wells and drinking water supplies so that they can detect any pollutants that may be leaking from the well bore before they reach water wells.

“They’re rejecting our proposals that a monitoring well is necessary to detect pollution prior to it reaching aquifers or water wells in question,” Knaus said. “That was a primary concern in Milner (at Quicksilver Resources' Camilletti well), where there were 50 or so water wells at risk. Monitoring those wells is fine, but once a pollutant is discovered there, it’s too late — it’s not preventative.”

The Camilletti well was granted a county permit last year with the requirement of a monitoring well, but Quicksilver has chosen not to act on the permit to this point.

In formal documents filed with the COGCC on Dec. 4, the attorneys for Routt County suggested modifications to Rule 609 that read: “A monitoring well or wells shall, where practicable, be located on the conceptual flow pathway between the oil or gas well and the water sources that could be contaminated by leaks.”

Shell Oil, which actively is drilling exploratory oil wells in the vicinity of Hayden about 25 miles west of Steamboat Springs, also made a series of proposed changes to Rule 609, and in doing so suggested the COGCC’s proposal does not rise to the level of water-quality monitoring that Shell maintains in its onshore operations.

“Shell supports the COGCC’s efforts to craft and implement a mandatory groundwater testing program statewide,” a statement written by an attorney working for Shell in November read. “However, Shell has concerns that the draft rule on this issues fails to meet Shell’s global onshore operating principles regarding the testing of potable water sources to determine whether changes have occurred both before and after oil and gas operations.”

The position statement from Shell went on to say that Rule 609 should be open to, but should not mandate, agreements between local governments and drilling operators regarding monitoring water quality in water sources other than domestic wells or springs already in existence.

Knaus said he would not presume to speak for the Routt County Board of Commissioners at this point in the COGCC rulemaking process, but an additional issue for the county has been the perception that Rule 609 could set a precedent that negates county’s authority to regulate land uses.

“To that end, Routt County will continue to collaborate with industry and professionals knowledgeable of localized considerations to protect groundwater while encouraging the responsible development of oil and gas resources,” Knaus and Merrill wrote to the COGCC in their statement.

The COGCC hearings will begin at 9 a.m. Monday at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel, 1550 Court Place.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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