Colorado regulators consider new groundwater protections

Colorado regulators are considering new rules that are intended to protect groundwater from the time an oil or gas well is drilled until it’s shut off.

The hearing opened Wednesday by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is part of ongoing revisions to oil and gas regulations mandated by Senate Bill 181, approved by the legislature in 2019.

The latest proposal before the COGCC deals with the well bore, or the hole that’s drilled to access oil or gas and the pipes and casings installed to inject fluids to make fractures in underground rocks and sand and bring up the oil and gas. The casings and cement that are part of the construction are also meant to ensure that no fracking fluids, oil or gas escape and flow into groundwater.

Heading into the hearing, there appeared to be general agreement among the parties on the proposed changes. Since the COGCC and the state Air Quality Control Commission began writing new rules, oil and gas industry representatives, community and environmental groups have clashed with each other and with agency staffers in hearings and meetings over how far the regulations should go.

But Julie Murphy, COGCC chief of staff, said Wednesday that the agency was able to consider new rules on well bores earlier than expected thanks to a broad consensus among the various parties.

One of the main issues for several conservation organizations is protecting groundwater that is or could be used for drinking water, said Michael Freeman, an attorney with Earthjustice, which is representing six organizations.

“The original proposal said protected water is only relatively shallow groundwater, water that’s less than 3,000 feet underground. What that did was leave all kinds of good quality groundwater unprotected,” Freeman said.

The proposal was also inconsistent with Colorado state groundwater standards, Freeman said. The COGCC staff added language saying that groundwater with less than 10,000 parts per million total dissolved solids in it must be protected, Freeman said.

The standard addresses the amount of salt in the water is and is the same one in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and used by the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, Freeman said.

Water with 3,000-10,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids is often called “brackish,” or saltier than fresh water, but it can be treated to use for drinking.

“Every year water wells in Colorado are being drilled deeper and deeper. We can expect that we’re going to need that deeper drinking water in thefuture so it’s important that we protect it,” Freeman said.

The draft rules on wells also require more testing and monitoring of wells to make sure there are no structural problems, including leaks or cracks that could release oil, gas or fracking fluids flowing into groundwater. Murphy likened the procedures to a health check of the well.

Dan Haley, CEO and president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said the industry has been working for a while on recommendations made in 2019 by a multi-state body that deal with oil, gas and water issues. The COGCC asked the State Oil and Gas Regulatory Exchange to review Colorado’s regulations on ensuring the integrity of wells.

Lynn Granger, executive director of the industry group API-Colorado, said in an email that if the rules are adopted, they will strengthen what are among the most stringent regulations in the county.

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