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Colorado drillers, enviros near accord on groundwater protection rules. The only rub: How much to protect?

While Colorado regulators wrangle over air quality and community safety, industry and environmental groups have found lots of common ground -- beneath the surface.

Part of Extraction Oil & Gas's Sharpe extraction site is visible behind a noise wall in Adams County on Thursday, April 4, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)
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While the battle over Colorado oil and gas regulations is being fought above ground – on issues such as air quality and impacts on communities — there is near consensus when it comes to regulating down in the well.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is set to rule at the end of February on a proposed overhaul of the regulations governing the integrity of wells, to make sure they do not leak or blow out, and protect groundwater.

There is broad agreement on the rules – save for one point: how much groundwater the new regulation will protect.

The draft rules would require enhanced safeguards when oil and gas wells are drilled through potable water aquifers to a depth of 3,000 feet.

A coalition of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Earthjustice, filed a prehearing statement with the COGCC contending that the rules don’t safeguard enough groundwater.

 “We appreciate all the work that went into this rule,” said Mike Freeman, an Earthjustice attorney. “The problem is that the rule as written has a giant loophole and carve-out for a lot of the groundwater in the state.”

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While most drinking water wells in Colorado are within that 3,000-foot zone, Freeman said, “we need to protect not only the water we use today, but the water we will use in the future.”

In the filing, the coalition, which also includes the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Communities and the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, cited state Water Quality Control Commission data showing potable groundwater in some counties to depths of 7,400 feet.

The filing also noted that the water quality commission standards for groundwater makes no distinction on depth.

Water Quality Control Division staff met with COGCC staff “to ensure that any rule revisions were consistent” with the state Water Quality Control Act and the role of the commission, the division said in a statement to The Sun.

The proposed rule, Freeman said, does improve the operation of wells and offers enhanced protection. “The problem is they are defining very narrowly what gets protected.”

Christy Woodward, senior director of regulatory affairs at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, who participated in the drafting talks on behalf of the industry trade group, said the proposed rule strengthens existing protections for all water-bearing zones and noted that the deeper one goes, the poorer the water quality tends to be and the more expensive it is to bring to the surface.

Aside from the issue of groundwater protection, there is broad accord among industry groups, environmentalists and regulators on the proposals covering the drilling and the operation and closure of wells.

It includes a first-of-its-kind in the country requirement that each well in Colorado – there are about 52,000 – be pressure tested every year.

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“This would put Colorado at the head of the class on well integrity nationally,” said Adam Peltz, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, who helped draft the proposed rules.

EDF has been promoting revisions of well integrity rules around the country and Peltz said he has worked on well integrity rules in Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Oklahoma and California.

In March, the state adopted a new oil and gas law, Senate Bill 181, that mandated a series of rulemakings, giving priority to rules on surface impacts, health and safety.

Well integrity was near the bottom of the list. While COGCC focused on the top-priority rulemakings, the draft rules around well integrity were largely the work of collaboration between EDF and the Colorado oil companies and trade associations with input from commission staff.

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The “unique collaborative process between environmental representatives and industry” sped the rulemaking along, said Jeff Robbins, COGCC’s executive director. “We are hopeful in February we will get an early win we weren’t expecting.”

Jeff Robbins, COGCC executive director. (File photo)

As for the issues voiced by the coalition of environmental groups, Robbins said, “we have listened to the concerns they have raised … They will be a party to the rulemaking.”

Peltz said Environmental Defense Fund agrees with the other groups that this is “not an ideal formulation, and we understand the COGCC is looking into alternative definitions” of protected water.

The hearing on the well integrity rules is set for Feb. 24-26.

Woodward called the rulemaking a model of how to get things done. The state’s two main trade groups – COGA and the Colorado Petroleum Council – participated in the process.

“We tried to find out where we could beef up the rules and make them consistent with best practices,” Woodward said. “These are things people have already been doing in some form or fashion and we are making it consistent for everybody.”

Still, small oil and gas operators, who run shallow vertical wells, have concerns about the draft rules. “One rule does not fit all,” said Trisha Fanning, of the Small Operators Society, which represents 50 oil and gas operators with a total of 7,000 wells in Colorado.

“The public perception is basing everything on the DJ Basin [centered on Weld County] with large horizontal wells, hydraulic fracking operations and multi-well pads,” Fanning said.

While the horizontal wells can stretch for miles underground and depend upon high pressure hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to release oil and gas, the vertical wells go straight down a few thousand feet and often operate at low pressures, requiring pumps to pull product out of the ground.

Fanning said asking for annual testing that has never previously been required “may be an insurmountable cost for some operators.”

Oil pumps dot the horizon near Dacono. This type of pump is used to pull oil from low-pressure, vertical wells that go only a few thousand feet below the surface. (Jennifer Brown, The Colorado Sun)

The rules will entail a lot more paperwork and some of the monitoring may not be feasible for low-pressure wells, Woodward said.

The proposed rules include more detailed requirements for the casings and cement jobs of a well with the aim of insuring “hydrocarbons are kept in tight and away from aquifers,” Robbins said.

After a well is drilled, metal casing or pipe is placed down the hole and cement poured between the outside of the casing and the edge of the well. The casing and cement are designed to keep oil and gas in – especially in ground water areas – and keep water and foreign material out of the well.

“Getting a good cement job is key to getting a leak-free well for its life,” Peltz said.

The rules would require steel casing to be tested before going into the well, additional checks on the cement job, and limited use of additives in the drilling muds used to lubricate the drill bit while moving through zones where the water is protected.

If groundwater protection was extended beyond the 3,000-foot zone it would require more casing, more cement and more expense for drillers.

The rules would also require more detailed monitoring of fracking, although many of the measures are already used by many drillers. When an operator plans to close and abandon a well, a more comprehensive plan than is currently required would be needed with the option of the COGCC demanding “additional actions to correct deficiencies.”

Finally, the proposed rules would prescribe more pressure tests of wells during their development and the annual test of all wells in the state. The pressure tests are a way of gauging if the wells are intact and performing.

This comprehensive effort across the state will create a record to help regulators analyze well performance and, Robbins said, “if 10, 20, 30 years down the road there is an issue, we can go back and try to see what created that issue.”


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