Environmental Protection

State, County Establish Oil, Gas Rules

State and local governments in the Rocky Mountain region are demonstrating striking leadership in the regulation of oil and gas development. Colorado recently finalized an overhaul of statewide oil and gas rules, and Santa Fe County, N.M., formally adopted a local oil and gas ordinance.

Both sets of regulations usher in a new generation of oil and gas regulation in which state and county governments are beginning to focus on the toxicity of drilling products and greater protections for communities concerned with the industry's impact on public health, watersheds, private landowners, and overall land use.

As Colorado faces another record-setting year for the issuance of drilling permits, the state formally brought to a close an 18-month process to update and revise its oil and gas regulations. The regulatory overhaul was mandated when the Colorado Legislature reformed the mission and make-up of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) in 2007. A Commission that had been oil and gas industry-dominated for decades now has a balance of representation from the industry, local government, public health, agriculture and wildlife sectors, with a mandate to protect public health and the environment in the course of oil and gas development.

On Dec. 11, the COGCC formally adopted rules that will require the oil and gas industry to consider threats to human health and wildlife at the time a company applies for a permit. The rules establish protection zones around streams situated in watersheds that provide drinking water supplies, require companies to tell state and emergency responders what chemicals they use in drilling operations, and allow state health and wildlife officials to formally consult on oil and gas development applications.

"We should have been doing this from the start of this development, decades ago," said Dave Thomson, a landowner living with oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin. "These protections represent critical steps toward identifying threats to our public health from nearby gas activity. For the first time in any state, an agency will require that the industry keep track of the chemicals it uses and be ready to identify them in the case of a spill or accident." The rules also require, as New Mexico has recently done, that an oil or gas well site be cleaned up to general health standards, once the industrial activity is completed.

Santa Fe County has adopted a local ordinance addressing oil and gas development. Oil and gas exploration proposals in the area's Galisteo Basin prompted both a state and a county moratorium on permits last January until Santa Fe County and the state could draft and pass appropriate protections.

Gwen Lachelt, Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project director, applauded Santa Fe County, its contractors and residents for developing regulations that will protect public health and the environment in the event oil and gas development occurs in the region. Santa Fe County's overall approach looks at regulation of oil and gas activity as simply one industrial land use among many land uses that the county has to consider. This equality of treatment sets this ordinance apart from most other county ordinances where oil and gas development has been treated as an exception to local land use regulations.

Additionally, the Santa Fe County ordinance requires that an oil and gas permit applicant consider potential impacts to water quality and quantity, and health impacts to communities. The ordinance puts in place regulations on hydraulic fracturing by promoting the use of fresh water fracturing and the use of products and chemicals that have been approved by Santa Fe County.

"Protecting our public health is paramount. The industry enjoys exemptions from our federal laws that are intended to protect drinking water, public health, the environment, and communities from hazardous waste. It's critical that local governments find local solutions to industry's impacts and protecting our health," stated Lachelt.

The industry practice of hydraulic fracturing, or stimulating oil and gas production with high-volume injections of sand, water, and chemicals, was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. The Oil & Gas Accountability Project and many other groups across the nation opposed the exemption and worked for years to bring to light water contamination incidents associated with the practice. In October, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) introduced federal legislation to remove the exemption for hydraulic fracturing.

Lachelt said, "These state and local victories are noteworthy because this industry has managed to exempt itself from any real regulation for years. We applaud the efforts of these two western jurisdictions and look forward to other jurisdictions following suit."

Earthworks has 80,000 members and offices in Durango, Bozeman and Washington, D.C.

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