DENVER • When it comes to regulating oil and gas operations in Colorado, Democrats at the Capitol are at odds with Gov. John Hickenlooper who has earned a reputation of being fracking friendly.
Among the bills being considered in the final full week of the legislative session are increased fines for oil and gas spills, additional inspections for each well, and more groundwater sampling in an area of the state that has the most drilling activity.
The oil and gas industry has opposed most of those bills in part through a force of lobbyists that have been paid more than $750,000 in the past nine months, according to an analysis of data maintained by the Secretary of State.
“We’re trying very hard, but it’s been very frustrating this session. We just haven’t gotten a lot done,” Rep. Dickie Lee Hullinghorst, D-Longmont, said. “I’m not going to give up on it, but I’ve got to tell you I’m frustrated.”
That frustration is in part with the industry, in part with stringent anti-fracking groups and in part with Hickenlooper’s office, she said.
“(Hickenlooper) he has said that he’s interested in signing a fines and penalties bill and an inspectors bill and that may be what we end up with,” she said.
What that would leave on the table – perhaps through a veto – is a bill that was heard for the first time in committee Thursday requiring the state’s most active oil and gas field be subjected to the same water testing standards as the rest of the state.
The Greater Wattenberg Area – Colorado’s most active oil and gas drilling field – was subjected to less stringent groundwater testing rules than the rest of the state in a four-month long rulemaking process undertaken by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Matthew Lepore, executive director of the commission said the Greater Wattenberg area was exempted in part because production is so dense in the area.
Already the area is required to have one monitoring well per square mile. There are 585 sampling wells in the area to test groundwater for possible contamination from the oil and gas industry and Lepore said there is a database of 962 samples from those wells.
Under new rules the Greater Wattenberg Area would be required to have four testing wells in every square mile, but that’s significantly less than the four groundwater samples per oil and gas drilling well required in the rest of the state under a new rule.
Lepore said given the density of drilling that’s occurring in the Greater Wattenberg Area any more wells will see diminishing returns. Industry experts testified that each sample costs about $2,400, but lawmakers say it’s much less, about $1,400.
The area in question encompasses a huge swath of Weld, Larimer and Adams counties and parts of Denver, Broomfield, Boulder and Morgan counties.
“Damage is occurring,” Hullinghorst said. “We really don’t know to what extent and the only way we are going to find that out and the only way the groundwater in our streams and our wells can be assured to be safe, is if we have a robust water monitoring program in the state of Colorado.”
Hullinghorst said it was astounding to her that the most heavily drilled area is being exempted from that robust system.
“The rule applies a much weaker regime in the Greater Wattenberg Area what I would call ground zero in the fracking wars, where a full quarter of the state’s fracking activity is taking place right now,” she said.
Also exempted from the stringent testing rule and exempted from Hullinghorst’s bill, is the San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado.
Hullinghorst said the conditions and type of drilling done in that area are unique and warrant a specific rule.
Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, said she found that ironic.
“It’s not one size fits all for the San Juan Basin and it’s not one size fits all for Greater Wattenberg,” she said. “We have had a lot of fear mongering without a lot of facts.”
Water testing is important before drilling a new oil or gas well occurs to establish a baseline of heavy metals and other contaminants in the water for comparison. Under the new rule, companies would have to test the water again after the well is completed and then five to six years later. Hullinghorst said that is the only way the state can know the impact of the drilling.
Some oil and gas regulations didn’t make it to the table this year. Hullinghorst said she had hoped to see legislation introduced regarding local control over drilling, something that has been called into question in Longmont when the state sued over regulations.
Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644 Twitter @CapitolSchrader