Pitkin County takes stand on oil and gas issues | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County takes stand on oil and gas issues

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

ASPEN – Taking stands related to oil and gas extraction in Colorado, Pitkin County commissioners prepared this week to fire off letters regarding hydraulic fracking and exploration in the Thompson Divide area, outside of Carbondale.

In a letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, county commissioners are siding with Gov. John Hickenlooper’s call for full disclosure of all hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

“Unfortunately, far from realizing that objective, the proposed rule allows oil and gas companies effectively to hide whatever chemicals they prefer not to disclose,” reads the county’s letter, which Commissioner Rachel Richards, chairwoman, was to sign Thursday afternoon.

The oil and gas industry maintains that some of the chemicals are proprietary, or trade secrets, but commissioners reject that argument.

“Unless you’re pouring Coca-Cola in the ground, we want to know what’s in this thing,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said as commissioners discussed a draft of their letter Tuesday.

“Full disclosure is the only real course,” Richards said. “I tend to lean a little bit to the side of, there should be no trade secrets. If it’s something that should be safe for all of us, we should know.”

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According to the letter, full disclosure of fracking chemicals allows agencies to assess the potential risks before they result in “catastrophic impacts to public health and safety.”

The Hydraulic Fracturing Disclosure Rule, as currently proposed, also would hinder immediate response in the event of a spill, for example, commissioners contend.

At the very least, full disclosure to local and state health agencies, environmental protection agencies, health professionals, first responders and the state commission’s director should be required, according to commissioners.

“Correcting the trade secret exemption flaw will help achieve the standard of transparency that Gov. Hickenlooper rightly supports,” the letter concludes.

The state oil and gas commission is expected to hold a hearing next month to look at adopting rules for public disclosure.

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique for extracting oil and gas. Fluids are injected into the ground at high pressure, fracturing rock and allowing oil or gas to flow out more freely. Commissioners note the potential for groundwater contamination as a result of the process, citing the discovery of benzene, a chemical commonly used in fracking, in Pavillion, Wyo. There, residents have been warned not to drink or cook with well water, and to ventilate their homes when they shower, the county’s letter says.

On another matter, commissioners already had commented on the proposed Lake Ridge Exploratory Oil and Gas Unit in the Thompson Divide area, but they drafted a new letter to both area Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials in the wake of a recent Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the 2001 Roadless Rule.

Last summer, commissioners went on record opposing an application from Houston-based SG Interests to “unitize” its 16 leases in the area, plus two others – a move that opponents believe would allow it to drill one test well for the entire unit and hold onto the leases for the foreseeable future. The county urged the BLM to deny the application.

The county’s latest letter notes that 13 of the 18 leases proposed for unitization were issued after implementation of the Roadless Rule. The latest court ruling calls into question their validity, commissioners contend.

“I think we need to put them on notice – we don’t think these are legitimate leases based on that,” Richards said in a discussion of the letter last week.

Commissioners are again urging the BLM to reject the unitization request, and to require an environmental analysis of drilling impacts if the application is approved.

Finally, a letter from commissioners to U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, along with other officials, again urges the congressmen to introduce legislation that would permanently withdraw the Thompson Divide area from availability for future oil and gas leasing.

The Lake Ridge unit is within the more expansive Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale.

janet@aspentimes.com