Fracking regulations could tighten

Feb. 8, 2012
Bobby Magill

As oil and gas development increases throughout Northern Colorado, an Aurora lawmaker wants to require energy companies to provide more information to the state about how much water is used for hydraulic fracturing and prevent possible groundwater contamination from the practice, particularly in areas where radioactive and explosive material can be found.

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, is sponsoring the "Water Rights Protection Act," which, if passed, could affect future oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in eastern Larimer County where there are underground uranium deposits.

The oil and gas industry uses hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to help drill horizontal wells, which reach oil or natural gas found thousands of feet underground in deposits that were once uneconomical to tap. Nearly all the new oil wells in the region are fracked, which requires the use of millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals to blast open, or fracture, the rock deep underground in order to release oil and gas.

Fracking is a controversial issue in Northern Colorado, where the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District may decide this week whether to allow Colorado-Big Thompson Project water to be used for energy development and fracking outside the district's boundaries.

Windsor-area residents became concerned about fracking last year after an energy company proposed to drill new oil wells near a subdivision, where residents are worried about how fracking could affect their water quality.

Carroll's bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, seeks to require the state to write new rules that would regulate fracking near federal Superfund sites and sites containing radioactive materials.

Energy companies would be required to report to the state how much water they plan to use to frack a specific well and submit water quality reports for all water wells within a half mile of a fracked oil well.

The bill would prohibit fracking within a half mile of any surface water unless the driller keeps all the fracking fluid contained within a "closed-loop" system, which would prevent the fluid from escaping into the environment.

Energy companies would also be held responsible for any water pollution that occurs within a half mile of a well and its bottom-hole if that pollution occurred within six months of drilling.

"With fracking statewide, I have an interest in getting the big picture of how much water we're using, both projected and actual," Carroll said Monday. "The portion of the bill that's dealing with closed-loop, there's rebuttable presumption that if there's contamination, that if you drilled within a half mile within the last six months, you're the one who's responsible for that."

She said the bill, primarily written to address issues with fracking near unexploded munitions and places where depleted uranium was stored at the former Lowry Bombing and Gunnery Range in Aurora, would apply to areas with uranium deposits, possibly including Powertech's Centennial Project site between Wellington and Nunn.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents the energy industry in Colorado, has not yet taken a position on the bill.

"While we were not consulted with or shared a draft before introduction, and as such cannot comment on all the details or motivations, we do look forward to discussing the bill with the sponsor," said COGA spokesman Doug Flanders.

Carroll said the bill could harness some political momentum about fracking created by new state rules adopted last year requiring energy companies to publicly disclose many of the chemicals that make up fracking fluid.

"I think with greater transparency, people are going to realize fracking fluids are not anything to take lightly," she said. "I think for most people who have concerns about this, disclosure is a very good first step."