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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Colorado can take a big step to reduce risk to the people and environment posed by oil and gas

In Colorado, nearly half a million people live within a mile of the state’s 60,000 or so active oil and gas wells.

Oil and gas development has its boosters and detractors, but one thing we can all agree on is that it should not harm people or the environment.

Last year’s oil and gas omnibus reform legislation, known as Senate Bill 181, prioritizes the protection of public safety, health, welfare and the environment in the regulation of the oil and gas industry and calls for a series of rule upgrades to ensure that is the case.

Nicole Johnston, mayor pro tem of Aurora. (Handout)

One of those rulemakings, which is up for finalization at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing this spring, is about “well integrity,” or ensuring that wells don’t leak or explode.

As a municipal leader – and these are my individual opinions and not a representation of the council – I care about all aspects of oil and gas safety and minimizing impacts on our residents, whatever the source.

One aspect of SB-181 enhances local control over oil and gas development, giving municipalities a say over issues related to air emissions, noise, light, dust, truck traffic and other surface issues.

But regulations from the wellhead down are entirely under the purview of the COGCC, and so it is all the more important that this statewide rule be as stringent and protective as possible.

This matters a lot, because nobody wants leaking and exploding wells. Wells that are not drilled, constructed, operated, maintained and closed properly run the risk of allowing contamination of aquifers, migration of methane to the atmosphere (which impacts our climate), or potentially migration of methane through aquifers into homes and businesses.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

During drilling especially, there is also a risk of blowouts, where large volumes of liquids and gases flood into a wellbore and up to the surface, creating toxic geysers and putting the lives of oilfield workers and nearby residents as risk. All of this can be avoided through proper engineering and oversight, and if it can be avoided, it must be avoided.

Well integrity rules in Colorado have not been updated since 2008 – and we know about at least 40 incidents in the state since 2016 (likely an undercount), including notable blowouts in Hudson and Berthoud in 2017.

I am pleased that COGCC has proposed what would be among the very strongest well integrity rules in the country.

The current proposal is the product of considerable stakeholder work from experts in the state and around the country.

After the Firestone tragedy – a 2017 explosion related to an open flowline that killed two people in their home – Governor Hickenlooper called for a peer review of a number of Colorado’s oil and gas safety rules, including well integrity.

That review, conducted by the State Oil and Gas Regulatory Exchange, examined Colorado’s well integrity rules across 136 elements and found around 45 substantive areas where Colorado’s rules could be improved.

A group of environmentalists and industry operators collaborated to turn the report’s recommendations into rule language to provide to COGCC for a rulemaking.

It took months of work, but it paid off – the resulting proposed rule responds to the report’s recommendations in full, would put Colorado near or at the head of the class nationally on this issue, are implementable by industry, and, most importantly, significantly reduce risk to the people and environment of Colorado.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

I support the adoption of this rule pending resolution of the definition of protected water, and we should use this momentum to tackle the rest of the issues raised in SB-181, including cumulative impact of development, bonding and financial assurance, and siting to minimize impacts.

Colorado should have the best rules in the country for the protection of its citizens. The well integrity rule is a good start, and we will work hard to finish the job.


Nicole Johnston is the mayor pro tem of Aurora and a contributor to Western Leaders Voices, a program of Western Leaders Network that helps amplify the voices of local and tribal elected leaders on conservation issues in the West.

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