Longmont lawsuit looked at for drilling rules clarity
A state lawsuit against the city of Longmont over its oil and gas regulations could help address a gray area between state and local oversight of the industry, a Colorado Department of Natural Resources official said Saturday in Grand Junction.
Ginny Brannon, assistant director of water and energy for the department, spoke as part of a panel on hydraulic fracturing at Club 20’s spring meeting at Colorado Mesa University.
The state sued Longmont out of concern that its rules infringed on areas the state believes it should control. Brannon said there’s little debate about local governments’ authority over land-use aspects of oil and gas operations, or the state’s authority over “down-hole” technical ones involving wells. But the problems arise in areas that fall somewhere between these two areas.
“And so we need some clarity, and frankly, I think it will be great to get some clarity from the courts here and see how this goes,” she said.
The local control issue arises amid concerns in Colorado and in other states over the potential health and environmental impacts of fracking. But both Brannon and Dave Andrews, an engineering supervisor for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Saturday the concern is misplaced because fracking is safe.
Brannon said that for concerned people, fracking has come to be a synonym for drilling, and oil and gas activity in general.
“So we’re really not talking about fracturing, we’re talking about drilling,” she said.
Andrews said thick geological barriers protect shallow groundwater from fracturing that occurs deep underground.
Jay Foreman, who manages well completion operations in the Piceance Basin for WPX Energy, said, “None of the operators want fractures to grow out of the zone of interests because it’s very costly. We certainly don’t want (ground) water entering into our operations as well.”
Andrews said the COGCC isn’t aware of any groundwater impacts from fracturing, but there have been problems during drilling of wells and the cementing process intended to seal them off.
Such problems led to methane and benzene reaching West Divide Creek south of Silt in 2004. But the COGCC put in more stringent policies for much of the Piceance Basin after that to prevent recurrences of such problems, Andrews said.
Brannon said the focus of new regulations being adopted by the oil and gas commission is to address where impacts can occur. For example, pit lining requirements have been toughened and pitless drilling encouraged.
Brannon pointed to a number of requirements the commission has implemented in recent years, including public disclosure of the contents of hydraulic fracturing fluids, testing of area groundwater before and after drilling operations, and new setback rules requiring mitigation measures within 1,000 feet of buildings and excluding drilling closer than 500 feet except under certain exceptions.
Those rules drew a challenge from J. Paul Brown of La Plata County, who said his and others’ property rights are harmed by increased setbacks and asked who would pay for that.
But Brannon noted that the oil and gas commission can grant variances for drilling as close as 200 feet.
“So it’s not a taking in that sense,” she said.
Not satisfied, Brown said, “I want you to know that somebody’s going to pay.”
Linda Romer Todd, a Grand Junction real estate agent, told Brannon she’s concerned about how many people are losing drilling-related jobs in the region.
“They all tell me that it’s because of the new regulations that are being imposed on the industry here,” she said.
Brannon said that since the passage of new regulations in 2008 oil production in the state has increased 30 percent, and gas production 10 percent, and Colorado has seen more wells being drilled than in surrounding states.
Mesa County Commissioner John Justman said while the well count may be up on private land in Weld County, “I’m sure it’s not in western Colorado.”