When Colorado lawmakers overwhelmingly approved updating state oil and gas regulations in 2007 and regulators wrote the rules to implement the changes, some issues were put aside with the promise they would be resolved later.
One of those issues was riparian setbacks, how far oil and gas wells must be from most of Colorado's waterways and adjacent areas. Resolution of the matter languished after the recession and plunging natural gas prices ended the state's drilling boom.
A recent upswing in drilling along the Front Range, driven largely by successful oil wells in the Niobrara formation, has understandably led to calls for stricter standards on how close drilling rigs and other equipment should be to homes, schools, hospitals and other sites.
It's time that state regulators and industry representatives address the other concern: the distance that rigs and wells must be from the waterways that provide drinking and irrigation water and support fish and wildlife. The spill of hydrocarbons near a natural gas processing plant near Parachute Creek in western Colorado is just the latest glaring example of why it is past time to take up riparian protection measures.
As we've seen on the Yellowstone River in Montana, in Mayflower, Ark., and now on Parachute Creek, our massive network of pipeline systems can fail, and when that's by a river or stream, the consequences can be serious both for public health and for fisheries. Whatever the Parachute spill's cause, whatever the ultimate damage, this is a wake-up call that cannot be ignored.
The Denver Post reports that benzene, a cancer-causing petroleum byproduct, has been detected downstream from the spill near Parachute. The levels are currently within federal drinking water standards. Parachute Creek, however, is used for irrigation — and flows into the Colorado River.
In 2008, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved 300-foot setbacks from gold-medal fisheries, waters containing native cutthroat trout and intake areas for community water supplies as part of the overhaul of oil and gas regulations. That's a small volume in a state that is the headwaters of rivers that provide water for states across the West.
An oil spill has fouled Spring Gulch Creek, a tributary of the North Platte River in North Park, an important agricultural area and known for its abundant fish, wildlife, hunting and angling. The Environmental Protection Agency has found that aquatic life in the creek is imperiled and state health officials are suing the operator, Englewood-based Lone Pine Gas, over the company's discharges.
These are not isolated incidents. A review of state data by the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities shows that more than 60 percent of the spills reported in Colorado from January 2011 to Feb. 23, 2013, by five major operators occurred within 1,500 feet of surface water and more than 30 percent occurred within 500 feet. The spills by the five companies accounted for 555 of the 985 spills reported statewide.
While out of most Coloradans' sight, these spills should not be out of mind. Regulators can fulfill their duty to protect public health, the environment and the general welfare by convening a stakeholder group to develop and present proposed riparian buffers and other protections to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Last year, the Colorado Wildlife Federation, the National Wildlife Federation and national and state representatives of Trout Unlimited initiated preliminary talks with industry representatives to try to begin to identify what consensus may exist on reasonable, science-based riparian safety measures that can bring the entire industry up to the standard of the best operators.
As regulators work to identify the cause of the Parachute leak and clean up the Lone Pine spill, these events should prompt all of us — conservationists, industry, and government — to come together to identify sensible ways to minimize the harm from future spills.
Michael Saul is an attorney in the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder. Suzanne O'Neill is executive director of the Colorado Wildlife Federation.