‘Cultural divide’ shapes Colo.’s clash with city drilling rules

‘Cultural divide’ shapes Colo.’s clash with city drilling rules by Mike Soraghan, September 5, 2012, E&E News
LONGMONT, Colo. — Kaye Fissinger can point to where every oil and gas well will be drilled around Union Reservoir. Not that she’s welcoming them. As a breeze broke the stillness, lifted the branches of shade trees and pushed a small catamaran across the small lake on a Wednesday afternoon last month, she pointed to the one already there. In the distance was a beige tank battery, the pipes, tanks and other equipment that remain after a well is drilled. It is the first of eight wells expected to be drilled at the city park around the lake under an agreement between the driller and the city government. “Look at what it’s going to do — derricks, trucks, tank batteries …” said Fissinger, activist and campaign manager for a local anti-drilling effort called “Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont.”

The City Council passed rules in July barring oil and gas wells from residential neighborhoods. Within days, the state sued to block it.

State officials have banded together with the oil and gas industry to head off regulation by both federal and local governments, arguing simultaneously against a federal “one size fits all” approach and the “patchwork” that would be created by giving cities and counties control over exploration and production. In Pennsylvania, local governments sued the state after the Legislature passed a measure limiting local control over drilling. In New York, drilling companies such as Colorado-based Anschutz Exploration Corp. have been losing legal challenges to local bans. But the Colorado suit is the first case in the nation’s current drilling boom in which a state agency has gone to court to prevent a local government from asserting jurisdiction over drilling. The city’s formal response is due by Friday. The plaintiff in the suit is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a state body charged with policing and promoting development. But Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) has led the charge against Longmont’s ordinance, calling Longmont’s rules “to a certain extent too forceful” in a recent speech and saying they would put “intense pressure” on other local governments to create a patchwork of different rules. … Anti-drilling critics have taken to calling the popular governor “Frackenlooper.” Those critics say exempting oil and gas from city zoning amounts to special treatment for a powerful industry that endangers people’s health. … “Name another industry to me that doesn’t have to comply with local, disparate zoning regulations,” said Michael Bellmont, another Our Longmont leader, sitting in his long-term care insurance office in Longmont’s trendy Prospect New Town district. … “The state has very minimal guidelines for where you can drill. What the cities have done is try to fill in the blanks,” said Terry Welch, a lawyer who represents cities in Texas.

Hickenlooper did a radio ad earlier this year for COGA, asserting the industry talking point that since rules were created in 2008, the state hadn’t “had one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing.” But oil and gas commission spill records show 255 incidents in which groundwater was “impacted” during 2009, 2010 and 2011. And before the new rules, Colorado was already the scene of a few of the nation’s highest-profile groundwater contamination cases.

Laura Amos of Silt, Colo., blamed hydraulic fracturing chemicals for the rare tumor she developed after a well near her home blew out in 2001 during the fracturing process. State regulators concluded fracturing was not to blame for the problems but fined the operator $99,400 because gas was found in her well. Nearby in 2004, a drilling crew poured a faulty cement seal around another well in 2004 that allowed gas and benzene to seep into a nearby stream, called West Divide Creek. The state hit Encana Corp. with a fine and declared a drilling moratorium in the area for several years. People complained in 2009 that gas was once again seeping into the creek, but the state rejected the claims. The residents’ complaints were detailed in the 2010 anti-drilling documentary “Gasland.” In 2008, COGCC asked gas drilling companies to investigate whether they had contaminated the drinking water at Ned Prather’s hunting cabin near DeBeque, Colo. (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2009). Tests showed the water had benzene and related chemicals at a concentration 20 times the safety limit. The companies determined they had not caused the contamination. The state went back, hired its own consultants and fined the lead company more than $400,000.

In Longmont, groundwater around a well 360 feet from a middle school has been contaminated with carcinogens such as benzene, which was measured at almost 100 times the state limit. Underscoring some of the dangers of drilling, the same day Fissinger pointed out the tank batteries in Firestone, a well blew up and killed a 60-year-old well worker not far away in the Fort Lupton area of Weld County (Greenwire, Aug. 17). State and industry officials say that Colorado has some of the most comprehensive state rules in the country. Even if that is true, state oil and gas regulation across the country is looser than regulation of other industries and is characterized by minimal fines and built-in conflicts of interest (Greenwire, Nov. 19, 2011). Industry is guaranteed three seats on Colorado’s nine-member commission, down from five of seven in 2007 (Greenwire, Nov. 30, 2011). And its mission is to “foster” development while also protecting health. To Finley, whose day job is with the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, something of a state chamber of commerce, that makes sense. “You want people who know what best practices and safe practices are, and those are the people from the industry,” she said. But it leaves Fissinger and her colleagues with little faith that the state will protect residents from the ills of drilling. She and her fellow drilling opponents say the state agency is interfering with rights granted in the state constitution, including residents’ right of “seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.” … She added that Colorado has only 17 full-time field inspectors; state officials note that an additional 20 people conduct oil and gas inspections as part of their work. “Air pollution, fugitive gases, spills,” Fissinger said. “By the time they get around to looking at it, the damage is done. Once they invade, they’re here.”… [Emphasis added]
Click here to see the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission’s lawsuit against Longmont.

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