Drilling industry in Colorado hopes voluntary testing will ease groundwater fears

Colorado oil and gas companies are preparing for a Nov. 1 rollout of the nation’s first statewide voluntary groundwater monitoring program for their industry.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association is launching a baseline testing program that it hopes will show the public that oil and gas operations don’t foul groundwater.

The plan is to test groundwater before and after drilling a well to determine initial water quality and whether subsequent drilling had any impact.

COGA President and Chief Executive Officer Tisha Conoly Schuller said the program is being implemented at a time when her group’s top challenge is winning public support.

“The public does not have confidence in our industry,” she said.

Her hope is that the program will prove oil and gas development, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, is safe. But she said it also would allow for quicker detection of drilling-related contamination should any be found, and thus faster remediation.

The testing would be done where landowners consent, with samples sent to accredited labs for analysis. The plan is to post results, again with landowner consent, on the website of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry.

COGA said companies responsible for drilling 90 percent of all wells in the state have agreed to participate in the program. Those include major local operators such as Williams, Encana Oil & Gas (USA), Antero Resources, Bill Barrett Corp. and Noble Energy.

Now the trade organization is working to achieve 100 percent participation, including companies that may not belong to the group and may drill just a few wells a year.

Schuller said she hopes to show that industry “can engage in a proactive way” through a voluntary program, and she doesn’t see a need for a mandatory baseline testing rule. She said the testing should result in a voluminous amount of data, some of it overlapping, for each basin where drilling occurs, and it may not be necessary to get to 100 percent participation to be able to win public confidence about the safety of drilling.

Frank Smith, director of organizing for the Western Colorado Congress citizens group, welcomed COGA’s plans. But he said he’d prefer to see the state require baseline testing, as history has shown in Colorado that “the small companies can pose just as much of a hazard to drinking water supplies and irrigation supplies.”

Smith added that as long as the industry is exempted from regulations under the federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, the COGA effort “may be just window dressing.”


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