Garfield County withholds FRAC Act support | AspenTimes.com

Garfield County withholds FRAC Act support

John Colson
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS – Despite evidence of significant sentiment to the contrary among the electorate, two Garfield County commissioners voted this week to oppose federal legislation which would put the oil and gas industry partly under the control of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Commissioner Tresi Houpt, the lone Democrat on the county board, said she supported what is known as the FRAC (for Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, introduced in both houses of Congress last summer.

But Republican Commissioners John Martin and Mike Samson cast the deciding votes for a resolution that endorses a continued exemption for the gas drilling industry from the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act, which is administered by the EPA.

The FRAC Act is intended to force gas drilling companies to reveal the chemicals used in the gas and oil drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing (or frac’ing), by ending an exemption from the SDWA that dates back to the 2005 Energy Security Act.

In the frac’ing procedure, massive amounts of water, sand and chemicals are injected into well bores to break up rock formations deep underground and allow gas and oil to flow more easily to the surface.

Residents in Colorado and other states, living near the drilling operations, have reported getting sick themselves, watching livestock die and experiencing everything from exploding domestic water wells to finding foul-smelling slicks covering nearby waterways – all of which they believe are related to the drilling activities and the chemicals used in the frac’ing process.

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The energy companies, however, argue that there have never been “documented” cases of groundwater contaminated by drilling rigs, and that the FRAC Act would cause regulatory delays and increased costs for their activities.

In a wide-ranging discussion before the vote, Martin and Samson framed their decision in terms of upholding states rights against unwanted federal interference, arguing that the state could regulate the industry better.

At one point Martin said that the state’s right to regulate the state’s waters goes all the way back to an 18th century “navigable waters” law passed by an early Congress.

“Do you want to have the federal government come in and tell you what’s going to happen?” he asked the crowd of 25 or so at the meeting, or should it be left to what he called “the local voice”?

Samson, who represents voters on the western end of the county, submitted a resolution that essentially mimicked a resolution adopted on Sept. 11, 2009, by Club 20, a Western Slope business organization. The organization lists a number of well-known energy companies as its sponsors, and nine of its 22 member counties have come out against the FRAC Act.

A competing resolution was submitted last month to the county commissioners by the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, which expressed support for the FRAC Act, but it was not formally considered by the board.

“We want Garfield County to support the FRAC Act so that this stuff comes under the purview of the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Leslie Robinson of the GVCA, as she stood outside the commissioners’ meeting room.

Facing a room filled with constituents who also supported the act, Samson and Martin both acknowledged receiving numerous phone calls about the issue, as did Houpt.

But where Houpt said the messages she received were in favor of the FRAC Act, Samson did not say how his calls went and Martin said his came in “about 50-50,” but most not in support of the FRAC Act. He also claimed that many of the calls were part of a “calling tree” organized by the GVCA, a claim that GVCA officials adamantly denied.

“That was flat-out false,” said Frank Smith, energy organizer for the Western Colorado Congress organization, of which GVCA is a member organization.

County administrative assistant Linda Morcom confirmed that she had “at least a thousand” phone calls over the course of several months, all of which were in favor of the FRAC Act.

Some at the meeting argued heatedly against the commissioners’ decision.

“It’s a matter of diversionary tactics,” declared James Golden of Rifle, arguing that the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has long been “controlled … by oil and gas interests” and does a poor job of looking out for the interests of the general populace.

Paul Light of the GVCA, pointing to a recent poll indicating that a majority of the region’s voters favor increased regulation of the industry, added that “the real battle is [not between federal and state regulators, but] between the industry and the people trying to drink the water.”

jcolson@aspentimes.com