By Analisa Romano | The Greeley Tribune, Colorado
A state regulator, an environmentalist, an oil and gas operator and a county attorney sat down at a table Monday night and found they could agree on a few things regarding regulations for oil and gas development in Colorado.
At the final forum in a FrackingSENSE series, hosted by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for the American West, all four experts told the several hundred gathered in the Northridge High School auditorium in Greeley that regulation is toughest in the gray areas where local and state authority overlaps.
All touted the benefits of collaboration — finding solutions unique to local entities and specific operators that address public concerns — and found a few solutions they said would help all sides.
The four discussed a website that geographically maps well sites to help with notification issues, a well site application process that uses the same template for all levels of regulation to ensure consistency and reliability for both sides, and an opportunity not used enough in which the industry and government officials can plan out the spacing and timing of development.
Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the state does have a “bigger piece of the pie” where regulation is concerned.
But local entities have a number of tools, including planning for land use and local government input in the state permitting process, to ensure local residents have their voices heard.
Still, many audience members took the COGCC to task in a more participatory forum this time around, asking in written questions why the COGCC seems to grant every permit that comes across its desk, and how COGCC officials reconcile the allowance of oil and gas development with inconclusive evidence of its health impacts.
Lepore said the state has a non-negotiable, legal duty to allow mineral resource owners to access their resources the same as a property right. An important distinction in public health studies is that none have found causation — that is, that oil and gas development is responsible for any health issues, he said. They have found an association, which can’t be used to make any conclusions.
Lepore said the COGCC often sends back permits that don’t satisfy their requirements, but that isn’t highly publicized.
Mike Paules, a senior staff regulatory adviser for WPX Energy, which drills primarily on the Western Slope, added that operators also do a great deal of work on the front end to ensure their permits satisfy all of the requirements.
Most of the time, Lepore said the industry is willing to go beyond what the state requires if a good deal of residents are concerned.
Or, said David Baumgarten, Gunnison County’s attorney, an agreement with the local government can be worked out. Baumgarten said when residents were concerned that not enough COGCC inspectors were checking well sites in Gunnison County, the county took on inspection duties on its own dime, still vetting the process through the state.
Baumgarten and Paules said that before adding more regulations, all parties involved should take a look at current regulations.
Paules said more emphasis should be put on whether or not a regulation worked or how well it was enforced. Baumgarten said performance-based regulations, in which the local government sets a standard (for example, to have zero water contamination) and allows the industry to creatively find a way to meet it, are more effective and employ a more technically knowledgeable group of people to find solutions.
Gary Graham, a member of Western Resource Advocates, pointed out a number of areas where, even if industry and public officials see no reason for panic, the public may need more communication and explanation.
Graham said quickly evolving technology poses an additional challenge that has far outpaced regulations in several areas.
Lepore disagreed, citing several rules, such as a groundwater testing rule last year and the disclosure of frac chemicals in 2011, as some of the first in the nation for oil and gas development. Some rules, though, are still retroactive, because it would be impossible to be a step ahead of the industry, he said.
“I don’t promote the industry. I don’t care how many wells they drill,” Lepore said. “We do ensure they are drilling in an economically … and responsible way.”