New fracking regs: Will Hick's gas play allay locals' fears?

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Flanked by environmental leaders and energy industry executives, Governor John Hickenlooper has unveiled tough new regulations for reducing methane emissions and other pollution from oil and gas drilling across the state. Leaning hard on words like "partnership" and "shared interest," the governor stressed that the new rules would insure that "Colorado has the cleanest and safest oil and gas industry in the country" -- but whether that will be enough to quell concerns among local communities in the cross-hairs of the fracking boom is another matter.

This has been a rough year for Hickenlooper and his political allies, from the emphatic rejection of an education spending hike to the recall of two Democratic legislators over gun-control laws to the uproar over the governor's reprieve for death-penalty prospect Nathan Dunlap.

But one of the most alarming developments has been the growing skepticism at a community level over the state's ability to adequately regulate gas drilling.

Despite Hickenlooper's repeated assurances that his team is on top of the situation and threats to sue municipalities that try to ban fracking entirely -- and despite oil and gas interests spending more than $900,000 to try to defeat fracking moratoria this fall -- measures suspending new drilling activities passed in Fort Collins, Lafayette and Boulder. (At last report, a fourth moratorium in Broomfield appears to have passed by seventeen votes, but the recount hasn't yet been completed.)

The new proposed rules would appear to be just the thing to get voters to breathe easier, so to speak. They include monthly inspections on large sources of emissions; an accelerated schedule for detecting and repairing leaks in storage tanks, at well sites and at compressor stations; and other requirements for reducing hydrocarbons and other volatile organic compounds (VOC).

In all, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment estimates the new requirements will reduce VOC emissions from oil and gas production by about a third, or 92,000 tons a year -- more than the total VOC spewed by all the state's cars.

The plan was the subject of some heavy back-slapping at a press conference yesterday.

Continue for more about new fracking regulations in Colorado. Environmental Defense Fund regional director Dan Grossman said the leak detection requirements were the most stringent of any state in the country; industry supporters, including Noble Energy veep Ted Brown, declared it was "the right thing to do" even thought they weren't sure how much the new detection equipment and procedures would cost them. (The CDPHE figures around $30 million a year.) Everybody agreed that rounding up methane and other greenhouse gases would help put the state in the forefront of efforts to address climate change.

Yet there seems to be a profound disconnect between the official story about how fracking is conducted and regulated and grassroots concerns about its risks and impacts. A former geologist, Hickenlooper can talk eloquently -- okay, competently -- about what the best science shows and how remote the possibility is of groundwater being contaminated by fracking fluid. But many of the people voting for fracking bans have legitimate (and largely unanswered) concerns about housing values and noise, as well as air and water pollution; they also have read stories about surface spills and seen TV images of storage tanks and well sites being savaged by September's floods.

In addition, there's been confusion among environmental groups about the new regs; a draft that didn't contain the methane requirements (one official described it as a "straw man proposal") circulated weeks earlier, triggering blasts about how weak it was. Some of the governor's green-leaning critics were left grousing Monday that they hadn't been consulted about the proposed rules and were still studying them.

The new regs still have to be vetted by the state's Air Quality Control Commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But will they reassure a disaffected public? Governor Goodgas was asked as much at yesterday's event, but he deflected a question about whether his administration would be suing the towns that just passed fracking bans.

"I don't anticipate getting involved," Hickenlooper said, but quickly added, "Our state constitution guarantees people a right to access their minerals.... These are our businesses. We want them to be as successful as they can."

More from our Environment archive circa May: "Antifracking victories: Voters reject industry, Hickenlooper threats of lawsuits."

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