Colorado oil, gas panel urged to consider health
August 19, 2008
DENVER ” Some Coloradans are calling on regulators to make public health a priority as the state considers an overhaul of oil and gas rules amid a natural gas boom.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was set to meet Tuesday to start considering proposals that would give more weight to environmental, wildlife and health issues.
Democratic state Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village joined environmentalists at a news conference Monday urging the commission to pass rules to protect drinking water, air quality and public health as Colorado’s energy boom continues.
Schwartz, vice chairwoman of a committee that oversees natural resource issues, said the laws mandating revamping the oil and gas rules had strong bipartisan support.
“Unfortunately, the oil and gas industry has launched a frenzied attack on these balanced, common sense protections that are so important to protecting the public’s health,” Schwartz said in a park outside Denver Health Medical Center.
The oil and gas industry has warned that the proposals could discourage companies’ interest in Colorado and cost the state jobs. An ad campaign in June by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association called the proposed rules “a looming threat to Colorado’s economy.”
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The oil and gas commission staff unveiled the preliminary proposals in January during five public meetings across the state. Representatives from the oil and gas industry, environmental groups, local governments and state agencies attended dozens of meetings on specific issues in February and the draft rules were released in March.
Proponents say updated regulations are long overdue considering the drilling rates. Colorado issued a record 6,368 drilling permits last year ” six times the 1999 total. State officials say at least 7,000 permits could be approved this year.
The oil and gas commission, appointed by the governor, held several days of hearings in June and took testimony from the public and various interest groups.
Meg Collins, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said she hopes that commissioners seriously consider an alternative proposal submitted in July by 29 companies and trade groups.
“Hope springs eternal that wise individuals and cool heads will be able to work something out,” Collins said.
The oil and gas commission staff recently revised some of the proposals in response to concerns. Elise Jones, director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said that proponents of updating the oil and gas regulations are urging the commission “to hold strong and not take shortcuts.”
“Here we are at the beginning of an unprecedented energy boom with very few protections for the public health at all,” Jones said. “Our state’s clean air, our clean water, our healthy communities are by far and away the most important economic assets to our state.”
Jones said conservationists are watching what happens to rules requiring buffers around drinking water sources where wells would be prohibited. She said companies would be able to apply to be exempted in some cases.
Another proposal would require oil and gas companies to disclose to the state what chemicals they use in drilling and other operations. Some of that information is on safety sheets at well sites, but companies consider the mixtures of chemicals they use to be trade secrets.
Dr. Kendall Gerdes of Denver, a specialist in internal and environmental medicine, said the oil and gas industry is exempt from such federal standards as the Safe Drinking Water Act. He said the state proposals are a good first step to remedy that.
“Essentially they’re in a position of self-policing,” Gerdes said of the industry. “Anything that we can do that takes them out of the position of potentially protecting their own financial interest rather than the public health interests of the people is in the right direction.”