Yesterday, amid an unusually genial gathering of environmental and energy leaders, Governor John Hickenlooper unveiled new state rules requiring detailed disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking") methods of drilling for oil and gas -- a major step toward transparency in the controversial drilling practice and a political victory for Hickenlooper, who's been eagerly pushing for more energy jobs while trying to placate fears that fracking fouls water supplies.
The new rules adopted by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission go well beyond the disclosure standards of other states, requiring drillers to list all the chemicals used in the fracking fluids they pump into wells to extract oil and gas in tight shale formations, as well as their concentrations. The move will allow residents to look up the fracking ingredients on a central registry maintained at fracfocus.org and to better monitor drinking water supplies to detect any possible contamination.
Companies can attempt to opt out of the public registry by claiming that their formula involves "trade secrets" and getting the process certified as such -- but they'll still be required to come clean about the ingredients to state health officials. The "trade secret" objection had been a major stumbling block in devising new rules, and yesterday's press conference was full of congratulatory statements about the collaboration that broke the logjam.
"We wanted to find the right balance," Hickenlooper explained, while predicting that the arrangement would allow companies to develop "greener, cutting-edge fracking fluids."
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Yet disclosure of what's in the fracking brew probably won't allay public concerns about the process, Governor Good Gas acknowledged. Fracking requires astonishing amounts of water, and the scale of projected drilling in Colorado and other western states is staggering. Disclosure needs to be coupled with exacting standards for how wells are drilled and operated, or Colorado could end up with a scenario similar to the suspected water contamination reported in Pavilion, Wyoming, last week, which has been blamed on shallow wells and inadequate casing.
"As drilling goes to where it's never been before, we're going to hear concerns," Hickenlooper said. "But I have said all along that our groundwater is so far from [the formations being fracked] that there's almost no possibility that we're going to see contamination from fracking."
Flanked by environmental and consumer advocates and gas industry execs, the governor announced the new fracking era in front of the giant John Fielder photograph of Lost Dollar Ranch in his office. Time will tell if the state can have its gas boom and keep its gorgeous scenery, too.
More from our News archive: "Fracking: Congress needs to drill into the issue, says Diana DeGette."