Tuesday, August 17, 2010

How It's Done

From today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
The (Pennsylvania) Department of Environmental Protection announced today it has fined Atlas Resources LLC $97,350 for allowing used hydraulic fracturing fluids to overfill a wastewater pit and contaminate a high-quality watershed in Hopewell Township, Washington County.

The violations were discovered on Dec. 5 and 6, 2009, at the Cowden 17 gas well on Old Trail Road off Route 844. Once the unknown quantity of fluid overflowed the impoundment's banks, it ran over the ground and into a tributary of Dunkle Run, according to a DEP news release.

"It is unacceptable for drilling companies in Pennsylvania to threaten public safety or harm the environment through careless acts, such as this," DEP Southwest Regional Director George Jugovic Jr. said in the release. "The Marcellus Shale offers significant economic opportunities for Pennsylvania, but these companies must adopt operating standards that prevent these sorts of accidents and they must make protecting our water resources a top priority."
I especially like the last sentence.

The DEP also fined this same company earlier this year for violations at 13 separate well sites in 2008 and 2009. They held public forums last month to further augment existing rules and regulations. Their website is comprehensive and easy to navigate, and includes news releases of meetings, enforcement activities, as well as ways that citizens can become more involved in the processes that define the agency's mission.

In contrast, while the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is making progress toward assuring that energy companies in Colorado conduct themselves responsibly with respect to natural resources and groundwater protection, it looks like there's more to be done. The record fine levied against Williams Co., reported last Friday in the Daily Sentinel, is a continued step in the right direction, but the structure of and manner in which the Commission's activities are reported to Coloradans seems to pale in comparison to the example set forth by Pennsylvania.

The COGCC website has plenty of information on rules, policies, staff reports, and includes a guide for those who are media savvy, but no news releases detailing enforcement activities, or how interested citizens can become more involved in the process. They have a kids page, though.

Many will call this an apples-to-oranges type of comparison. Granted, state governments back east are more entrenched, multi-layered, intrusive, and admittedly inefficient in many areas. There is a lot more at stake in Pennsylvania and other states that sit on top of the Marcellus Shale; the population density is higher, and many people depend on both surface and groundwater resources that require significant diligence to protect, especially given the heavy industrial past of many areas.

I wrote about this same kind of thing over three years ago, and I still feel the same way.

Many in Colorado will cite the manner in which government is reined in, through things like a part-time legislature, decidedly less local government, and TABOR. That can be a good thing in some areas, but not when public safety is threatened through harm to our physical environment. Attempts to further exacerbate restraint on government through ill-conceived initiatives such as Propositions 60, 61, and 101 will not help. You get what you pay for.

Having spent considerable time in Pennsylvania over the last few months, I know that there's a fight brewing over how drilling in the Marcellus Shale will be overseen by not only state government, but by local governments as well. Incumbent, term-limited Governor Ed Rendell will have his replacement elected in November. Many cities and townships are gearing up to attempt to ban drilling outright, and many citizens are calling for a New York-style moratorium on drilling until the regulatory infrastructure can catch up.

Is all of this appropriate, or even workable, in Colorado? Of course not. The squeeze is on for many people in this economy, and seemingly more so in Grand Junction. Striking a balance between the economic needs of our citizens and protecting the environment in which we all have to function will be a subject of impassioned and seemingly endless discussion wherever there are energy resources to be extracted.

How we achieve that balance of sustainability, economic and otherwise, will in large measure define our legacy, and impact the quality of living, for those who live here after us.

Have a great day.

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