Industry shifts its pit liner approach
Ryan Summerlin April 5, 2011
An oil and gas industry group on Monday withdrew its objection to a rule that requires drilling pad pit liners to be disposed in certified landfill sites.
The industry will instead shift its focus to working with local governments to find ways to get landfills certified so they can accept pit liners, said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association.
The industry has been trying to get the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to repeal a state government requirement that pit liners, which can be coated with potentially toxic materials, be disposed of in certified landfill sites.
The liners are giant sheets of synthetic, impermeable material used to keep fluids and slurries from seeping into the ground during drilling operations. Some of the fluids contain carcinogenic compounds, such as benzene.
Under older rules, prior to new regulations being put in place in 2008, drilling companies were allowed to bury pit liners in place once drilling activity was completed.
Environmentalists and other critics of the industry said the practice of burying pit liners in place posed a serious contamination hazard for area soil and ground water.
Industry representatives, on the other hand, maintained that the liners were being cleaned of potential toxins and did not pose an environmental risk.
The COGCC rules, including the pit liner disposal rule, were modified under Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter in 2007, along with an expansion of the COGCC board of directors to balance the influence of industry-affiliated members.
Although the industry has chafed under Rule 905, as the pit liner disposal rule is designated, not all drillers make use of pits or pit liners.
Williams Production, the biggest drilling company in Garfield County, uses a “closed loop” system involving storage tanks and reuse of certain fluids used in the drilling processes, which has eliminated the need for pits and liners, according to the company.
Williams spokeswoman Donna Gray said this week that the company has not used pits or pit liners for approximately four years, since it began using modern “flex-rigs” to drill wells.
But some companies do still use pits and pit liners, and disposal has become a problem.
In Garfield County, for example, the county landfill operators found the liners too troublesome and too potentially toxic to deal with.
Liners from Garfield County drilling operations have been trucked to landfill operations as far away as Utah for disposal, according to industry and county officials.
The Petroleum Association first proposed the rule change in 2010, arguing that the liners were not covered by federal environmental laws and could be regulated by the COGCC, which originally has permitted burial of the liners in place.
But environmental organizations, working through the Denver-based Earthjustice coalition, mounted campaigns to prevent the change.
An EPA finding late in 2010, requested by attorneys for Earthjustice on behalf of the environmental groups, ruled that the liners are not exempt from federal environmental laws.
The Colorado Petroleum Association’s petition was due to be considered by the COGCC board of directors at the board’s meeting this week.
According to Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, “I think we’ll be going down the route of trying to address the issue of pit liners … with local governments,” in terms of trying to get state certification for landfills to accept the liners.
“CPA should be commended for its willingness to work within existing COGCC rules,” said Earthjustice staff attorney Michael Freeman. “Rule 905 simply requires oil and gas companies to play by the same rules that apply to other industries doing business in Colorado.”