Tougher rules likely on reporting oil, gas spills

Colorado’s oil and gas regulators next month will consider tightening spill reporting rules by going beyond what’s required under a newly passed state law.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemaking is slated for its Dec. 16-17 meeting. It was prompted by the need to implement legislation introduced by state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, requiring companies to report within 24 hours exploration and production waste spills of more than one barrel (42 gallons) if they are outside berms or other secondary containment.

The current rule requires 24-hour reporting in the case of all spills of more than 20 barrels, and within 10 days for spills of five barrels or more. Immediate reporting is required for spills of any size that impact or threaten to impact any waters of the state, occupied structure, livestock or public byway.

A draft proposal by oil and gas commission staff would eliminate the 20-barrel reference and would require reporting within 24 hours for all spills of five barrels or more, regardless of whether confined within berms or other containment.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association has proposed keeping the 20-barrel and five-barrel reporting requirements as they are in the case of spills within contained areas.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is endorsing the proposal for more rapid reporting of all spills over five barrels, said the health department’s oil and gas liaison, Kent Kuster, in written comments to the commission.

Otherwise, spills as large as 840 gallons may not be reported in a timely manner, he wrote.

“The majority of well pads are not designed to contain fluids and may contain areas where fill has been used. These fill areas may allow contaminated fluids to move quickly through the soil resulting in greater groundwater contamination,” he wrote.

He said the proposal to require 24-hour reporting for all spills larger than five barrels would result in “increasing the attention to spills and releases and potentially minimizing the impact to ground water.”

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore said during a recent stakeholder meeting on the rulemaking that one point of the agency’s draft proposal is to simplify the rules by reducing the number of reporting thresholds.

But he said there’s also concern about the fact that “20 barrels is a fairly sizable release, approaching a thousand gallons.”

While secondary containment prevents lateral spreads of spills, it doesn’t necessarily prevent downward migration, depending on how it’s constructed, and even a 200-gallon spill can be of concern, he said.

While the commission hasn’t yet changed its rules, the new law took effect Aug. 7 and companies have been expected to comply with it.

Kirby Wynn, Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison, told county commissioners Monday that he has been receiving reports since then as required.

He said that in his experience there has never been a case where a company hasn’t alerted him to a meaningful spill.

Garfield County will be preparing its own comments on the commission’s proposal.

Meanwhile, a presentation Wynn provided to commissioners shows that in the county, there’s been a gradual reduction in spills outside containment since 2008 and a corresponding drop in the percentage of spills affecting ground or surface water. The commission overhauled its rules in 2008, including tightening them for when containment is required around tanks.

The county had 116 reported spills in 2008, rising to 140 by 2010, and declining to 59 last year and 65 so far this year. But spills outside containment numbered 64 in 2008 and just 21 last year. Spills affecting surface or groundwater steadily declined from 15 percent in 2008 to 3 percent last year.

“There’s a lot more containment now” than there was before 2008, Wynn said.

The commission has said that last year about 400 spills were reported statewide, including 66 cases where ground or surface water remediation was required.


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