New rules test water quality

Environmentalists, drillers unhappy

DENVER - Colorado's gas and oil regulators passed a new rule Monday to try and reassure citizens about their water quality.

Neither environmentalists nor drillers are happy about it.

Gov. John Hickenlooper had called for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to require water quality tests both before and after a well is drilled, in the hopes of demonstrating that drilling chemicals are not polluting drinking water.

The commission adopted that rule Monday on a 9-0 vote. It requires tests of up to four water wells within half a mile of a new gas or oil well prior to drilling. Companies will have to follow up with two more tests six months to a year later, and two more five or six years after that.

Monday's vote makes Colorado the third state to require drillers to test the groundwater before they put in a new gas well.

"Our commission has worked hard to arrive at an effective and reasoned place in developing this groundbreaking new rule," said Tom Compton, a Hesperus rancher who is chairman of the COGCC, in a news release. "We have listened carefully and considered the views of many parties, including many citizens, and we believe this rule gets us to a result that rigorously protects the environment while addressing and incorporating the varied concerns of numerous interests."

But the industry called the new rule too stringent.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association wanted a rule that required fewer water samples, said Doug Flanders, COGA's director of policy and external affairs.

"COGA supports a statewide groundwater baseline sampling program that continues Colorado's leadership as a state balancing responsible energy development with environmental stewardship. Unfortunately, this new rule does not seem to meet that balance," Flanders said in a news release.

Environmentalists don't like the rule, either, and they called it the weakest of any of the states that have passed water quality rules.

"It's urgent now more than ever that we know the water supplies we have and the groundwater is going to be protected," said Mike Chiropolos of Western Resource Advocates during testimony to the COGCC on Monday morning.

Environmentalists were upset that the rule caps the number of samples at four, even though more than four water wells might be nearby a new gas well. They also decried the rule's exemption of the state's largest gas field, which includes thousands of wells in Larimer and Weld counties.

Controversy over regulation of the industry is far from over. The COGCC is meeting this week to pass a rule on buffer zones between new wells and homes or schools. The commission plans to act by Wednesday.

Also, the Legislature convenes Wednesday, and several Democratic lawmakers are pushing for stricter rules on water quality, buffer zones, and local control over drilling.