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Regulators grapple with applying storm water regs to gas producers

A Garfield County resident is scheduled to testify today in favor of a nationwide rule that would make oil and gas operators obtain storm water discharge permits required of other industries.Colorado water quality regulators decided in March to impose similar requirements more quickly within the state, but that decision could face an industry lawsuit.Garland Anderson, of Grass Mesa south of Rifle, is scheduled to testify at an Environmental Protection Agency hearing in Dallas today. The EPA is considering requiring oil and gas operators to obtain storm water discharge permits for creating surface disturbances on properties from one to five acres in size. The permits require steps be taken to minimize runoff.The industry, along with other industries such as construction, already must obtain those permits when larger acreages are disturbed. However, when the EPA decided to extend the requirement to smaller acreages in 2003, it held off on applying the expanded rule to oil and gas operators pending further study.The state Water Quality Control Commission initially agreed to likewise postpone requiring the industry to obtain permits for disturbances of one to five acres. But at its March hearing, commission members changed their minds after hearing concerns about pollution at a Gunnison County drilling site. They decided to put the expanded rule in place as of June 30.”This was a somewhat contentious hearing,” said Paul Frohardt, the commission’s administrator.He said state officials have been informed the new rules may face a test in court.”Let’s just say that the industry is considering its options, which could include a legal challenge,” said Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association. “It’s premature to go beyond that.”State law prohibits the commission from passing regulations stricter than federal ones unless it has sound scientific and technical evidence of the need to do so. Wonstolen said the commission failed to meet that test in basing its decision on one isolated case.The commission disagreed, and raised concerns about the amount of additional land that the booming energy industry could disturb without a need for permits if the state waits on the EPA to act. An EPA decision isn’t scheduled until June 2006.Alan Rolston, an organizer for the Western Colorado Congress and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, said the goal of the regulations is to better control runoff from well pads.”I think you can drive by about any pad probably, especially in steeper terrain, and you can see problems with the runoff,” he said.That runoff can carry sediments into streams, affecting water quality and fisheries, supporters of the expanded rules say. It also can carry away any pollutants spilled on the site, threatening downstream drinking water.Ken Neubecker, West Slope organizer for Colorado Trout Unlimited, questioned the wisdom of exempting oil and gas producers from the current rules.”They are arguably the largest land developer in western Colorado right now,” Neubecker said at a recent Glenwood Springs forum on the wildlife impacts of proposed drilling on the Roan Plateau near Rifle.Yet many well pads fall below five acres in size.Wonstolen said the exemption is necessary to avoid duplicate regulations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission already requires the industry to control runoff, he said.The state Water Quality Control Commission maintains that its rules are more stringent.Wonstolen said Congress clearly meant to exempt the industry from the permit regulations, just as it is exempted from most other federal environmental requirements, because the federal government leaves governance of the industry to states instead.For that reason, the industry already is legally challenging the permit requirement for sites of more than five acres. The EPA rationalized that requirement by arguing that when a company builds a well pad it is part of the construction industry, and it becomes part of the oil and gas industry only once it starts drilling, Wonstolen said.”It’s kind of nonsensical to say you’re not an oil and gas operator even though you’re an oil and gas operator constructing a well site,” he said.He said both the U.S. House and Senate versions of the current energy bill clarify this issue to make clear that the oil and gas exemption is intended to be “cradle-to-grave.” Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516dwebb@postindependent.com


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