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Keeping an eye on the industry

Let’s give our county commissioners a pat on the back.

A decision Tuesday by the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, following last-minute work on a compromise by representatives of the oil and gas industry, environmentalists and regulators, gave Colorado a set of tough rules dealing with disclosure of chemicals used in the industry’s “fracking” process.

Our commissioners weighed in on the issue in a timely and thoughtful manner, adding valuable commentary in light of the importance of the matter when we consider the health of the local environment and of landowners affected by the drilling practice

In the fracking process, fluids are pumped below ground under high pressure to fracture rock and release oil and gas for extraction. It is a process widely used in the U.S. and one that could be used extensively in Pagosa Country.

Fracking has been a controversial practice, with many environmentalists and property owners claiming it can pollute water sources.

In the run-up to the decision Tuesday, the oil and gas industry opposed complete transparency concerning the contents of the fracking fluids. Industry spokespeople asserted that revealing chemical components and concentrations would divulge trade secrets, allowing competitors to reverse engineer products. The industry had worked hard to ensure it had significant control over what was revealed, and where.

The compromise reached prior to Tuesday’s decision mandates that chemicals and their concentrations are listed separate from descriptions of products in the fracking fluid, but information on the chemicals is still available. In order to make a claim of violation of a trade secret, oil and gas companies must file a form with the state commission justifying the claim. Even if successful, and if the specific chemical/concentration blend is not revealed, the family of the key chemical must still be listed.

The commission’s decision must, at least partly, please the Archuleta County Commissioners, who were in the forefront of the move to demand public disclosure of the chemicals associated with hydraulic fracturing. The BoCC sent a letter in November to the commission indicating support for creation of a chemical disclosure registry, not controlled by the industry and its trade association.

The BoCC recognized the need to protect trade secrets and supported the idea of justification of violation claims, but also noted it wanted a clear path to operators when determining liability – that operators should be held accountable for “errors or inaccuracies of their agents.”

The commissioners also asked that operators provide, “48-hour advance notice of intent to conduct hydraulic fracturing treatment to the Commission and that landowner notices shall include COGCC’s information sheet on hydraulic fracturing treatments,” The letter from the BoCC continued, stating, “Because it should be important to operators and the COGCC to have concern about potential impacts from hydraulic fracturing as well, we think it should be the operator’s duty to collect baseline water samples in all cases. While hydraulic fracturing fluids are injected thousands of feet below aquifers containing drinking water, the public deserves reassurance that if and when, and for whatever reason, these fluids are inadvertently released into the environment in a manner that causes contamination of soils at or near the surface and/or of drinking water resources, those responsible for the contamination are held responsible.” To that end, the county asked that all hydraulic fluids contain an inert marker so that fluids could be traced to an operator.

While the recent decision does not fully satisfy any party, resulting regulations are an excellent move forward and a platform for future reform. Seeing that more drilling operations will take place on lands in Pagosa Country, the vigilance and active concern exhibited by our county commissioners is commendable.

Karl Isberg

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