House looks at fracking spills

Bill would mandate reporting of smaller quantities

DENVER - In 2008, a spill of hydraulic fracturing fluid on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation made national news when a Mercy Regional Medical Center nurse nearly died from toxic exposure after treating the worker who caused the spill.

Regulators at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission initially did not know about the spill and speculated that it might have happened in New Mexico.

That's because COGCC rules only require reports for spills of more than five barrels - or 210 gallons - and the 150-gallon spill was below the reporting threshold.

On Wednesday, a state House committee advanced a bill to require reports of spills at gas and oil sites of one barrel or more - 42 gallons - if the spill leaves the well pad.

"When a spill is detected early, that means the operator and the local authorities can work together quickly and efficiently to clean it up," said Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, sponsor of House Bill 1278.

Her bill passed out of the House Transportation and Energy Committee 9-4. Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, was the only Republican to support the bill, although he said he might change his mind later.

Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, stepped to the gas and oil industry's defense.

"This industry is really getting attacked. They do all that they can to do what's best for safety," Buck said.

Industry groups, however, did not oppose the bill, and Gov. John Hickenlooper's administration supports it, said Bob Randall, deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources.

So far this year, gas and oil companies have reported nearly 100 spills to the COGCC, a pace of about one a day. If HB 1278 passes, Randall expects the commission will get even more reports.

"We think we can work through that, and it will be a manageable load," he said.

In the case of the Durango nurse, a supervisor for the hydraulic fracturing contractor, Weatherford, brought a Materials Safety Data Sheet on its proprietary frack fluid, ZetaFlow, to Mercy Medical Center. But the spill was not required to be reported to the COGCC in Denver.

The bill passed on to the House Appropriations Committee, and it looks to be one of a few gas and oil bills that will pass with relatively little controversy - and Hickenlooper's support.

The industry is fighting against a separate bill that passed out of the House on Tuesday with two Democrats and all Republicans opposed. It would rewrite the COGCC's mission to emphasize environmental protection at the expense of gas and oil production.

Hickenlooper has spoken out publicly against the idea.

joeh@cortezjournal.com