By CATHERINE TSAI Associated Press
DENVER—Colorado’s oil and gas regulators are volunteering to have an outside group review the state’s rules on fracking, an extraction method that some people worry could taint drinking water supplies.
The State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, or STRONGER, represents regulators, environmentalists and energy companies. Its members visited Colorado on Thursday to review how well the state’s hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, rules protect public health and the environment.
STRONGER last evaluated Colorado’s oil and gas rules in 1996. This time, it’s reviewing state guidelines on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which blasts water, chemicals and sand into rock to free natural gas.
Colorado is the fifth state to volunteer for such a review.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission earlier this month sent STRONGER written responses to questions about its rules. On Thursday, commission staff took questions in person from STRONGER reviewers Lori Wrotenbery of the Oil and Gas Conservation Division of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, environmental scientist Wilma Subra and Jim Collins of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and STRONGER observers.
They asked about the breadth of Colorado’s data on water wells and aquifers, philosophies on casing wells, how regulators handle odor complaints, and other issues.
STRONGER’s final report is expected later this year. It will be up to the commission to decide what to do with the findings, but the public could weigh in if the commission decides to change its rules.
Colorado commission director David Neslin, a STRONGER board member, said there have been no verified instances of fracking contaminating water in Colorado. “But that doesn’t end the discussion for us,” Neslin said, adding that while it’s important to produce energy, it’s also important to protect the environment.
Fracking is a process that has been used for decades, and industry officials say it is safe. However, some residents and environmental groups have questioned whether chemicals used in fracking could taint aquifers. Initial findings of a study by the Environmental Protection Agency on potential effects of fracking on drinking water aren’t expected until late next year.
In much of Colorado, thousands of feet separate production zones from aquifers, and rules on well construction and casing further protect water supplies, the oil and gas commission told STRONGER.
Colorado’s fracking rules also include one that requires operators to keep an inventory of chemicals used in fracking fluids at a well site if more than 500 pounds is used during a quarter. The oil and gas commission and health professionals have access to the information if they need it to respond to spills, complaints or medical emergencies, but not all the information is considered public.
In Texas this year, Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a bill requiring drillers to publicly disclose the chemicals they use starting in July 2012.
The Colorado disclosure rule has been used only a couple of times in the past two years to investigate complaints, Neslin said.
Colorado has about 45,000 active oil and gas wells, Neslin said.