Paul Stettner: Responsible energy development

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The Steamboat Today editorial “Rules to live by — for now” in the Jan. 16 newspaper stated: “For the first time, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) is poised to require energy operators to test groundwater quality before and after drilling operations.”

The editorial gives the impression that one of the recent changes to COGCC rules and regulations mandates such testing. A closer read of the proposed change that adds Rule 609 (Statewide Groundwater Baseline Sampling and Monitoring) shows otherwise.

As written, Rule 609 resembles the proverbial Swiss cheese by including loopholes through which the oil and gas operator may request exemption from the rule and not be required to monitor and test groundwater. If exempted, we continue the status quo where groundwater, if contaminated, is not detected, contamination continues, there is no remediation and the problem is left to be dealt with in the future. A comparable but more obvious situation left from the past is the toxic drainage from long-abandoned mines that flows into and contaminates state waters.

Here are some examples of excerpts from Rule 609 that allow operators to be exempted from the rule:

1. “Available water source shall mean a water source for which the water well owner, owner of a spring, or a land owner, as applicable, has given consent for sampling and testing and has consented to having the sample data obtained made available to the public, including without limitation, being posted on the COGCC website.”

Translation: If there is no consent by the owner, no testing is required.

2. “Water source shall mean water wells that are registered with Colorado Division of Water Resources, including household, domestic, livestock, irrigation, municipal/public, and commercial wells, permitted or adjudicated springs, or monitoring wells installed for the purpose of complying with groundwater baseline sampling and monitoring requirements under Rules 318A.e.(4), 608, or 609.”

Translation: Well or spring not registered? No testing is required.

3. “An operator may elect to install one or more groundwater monitoring wells to satisfy the requirements of this Rule 609, but installation of monitoring wells is not required under this rule.”

Translation: If there is no water source and the operator elects to not install monitoring well(s), no testing is required.

4. “Initial baseline samples and subsequent monitoring samples shall be collected from all available water sources, up to a maximum of four (4), within a one-half (1/2) mile radius of a proposed oil and gas well, multi-well site, or dedicated injection well.”

Translation: If there is no source within a half-mile, no testing is required.

5. “Condition of water source. An operator is not required to sample water sources that are determined to be improperly maintained, nonoperational, or have other physical impediments to sampling that would not allow for a representative sample to be safely collected or would require specialized sampling equipment (e.g. shut-in wells, wells with confined space issues, wells with no tap or pump, non-functioning wells, intermittent springs).”

Translation: If the operator disapproves of water source condition, no testing is required.

For any or all of the above reasons, an operator may request an exception from the requirements of Rule 609 by filing a Form 4 Sundry Notice for the COGGC director’s review and approval. Does the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have sufficient staff to verify reasons for exemption?

6. “Upon request, the COGCC director shall also make the analytical results and surveyed well locations available to the Local Governmental Designee from the jurisdiction in which the groundwater samples were collected, in the same electronic data deliverable format in which the data was provided to the director.”

Translation: Coordination and cooperation with the local government designee is not required.

The COGCC requires responsible energy development. I take that to mean that people, environment and resources will not be harmed or degraded. I’m guessing that credible oil and gas operators will not object to this idea and will not fold their tepees and flee if a meaningful groundwater testing program is mandated in Routt County.

Does responsible energy development impinge on private property rights?

A surface property owner may have a right to use groundwater, but because water flows according to topography and geology, not property boundaries, contaminated water could migrate from one property to another. Water not used as a potable source now possibly may be needed by others in the future. The responsible property owner would be the steward for this vital resource the same as for the land above. As written, the COGCC rules and regulations might encourage — but do not require — that stewardship. The purpose of monitoring groundwater quality is to detect and correct problems as soon as possible — not to infringe on private property rights.

Based on many hearings, input from a citizens work group and receiving a geo-hydrological consultant’s report, the Routt County Board of Commissioners established conditions in the county’s oil and gas special use permitting process that make monitoring, testing and reporting of groundwater quality mandatory. They are more comprehensive than the COGCC’s rules, and they do not include the COGCC escape clauses. The COGCC and Gov. John Hickenlooper, under strong influence by the oil and gas industry, oppose Routt County’s conditions and claim pre-emption by state authorities.

I hope that common sense prevails and that we do have responsible energy development in Routt County.

Paul Stettner is a longtime Steamboat Springs resident. He can be reached at stettner1@gmail.com.

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