An ‘ambitious’ year of rulemaking ahead for energy regulators

Mike Lee, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, January 27, 2015
Correction appended.Colorado oil and gas regulators plan to write regulations to control drilling in flood plains, noise, gas flaring and other issues this year. It may not be enough for some of their bosses, though.Two members of the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission asked the staff yesterday to update its regulations governing how oil companies restore and reclaim land after drilling ends, in response to a petition from the nonprofit Colorado Prairie Initiative. The staffers said they may not be able to accomplish it.

“From where I sit, that feels a little ambitious,” Matt Lepore, the commission’s director, said during a webcast of the commission meeting.

The commission, made up of six volunteers and the heads of the state public health and natural resources departments, sets policy for oil and gas development but relies on Lepore and other full-time staffers for day-to-day business.

Lepore said the organization is planning to write four sets of regulation in 2015, starting with a series of recommendations that came out of the September 2013 flood on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. About 300 wells were knocked out of production when the Platte River and its related creeks jumped their banks; about 91,000 gallons of oil and wastewater were spilled.

After that, the commission may have to write regulations in response to a task force that’s trying to solve the debate over local authority to regulate energy development (Greenwire, Jan. 19, 2014).

The commission also plans to write rules for spacing horizontal wells in the Julesburg Basin, Lepore said. Then come new rules that would limit flaring — the practice of burning off natural gas — and other topics. At the end of the year, the staff planned to write regulations controlling noise, which has become a hot topic as oil and gas development pushes into populated areas.

Noise “has been the single biggest source of complaints for many months now,” Lepore said. “Our rule as it exists today doesn’t really have a clearly enforceable standard.”

The Colorado Prairie Initiative, based in Boulder, filed its petition Jan. 13, asking the commission to adopt rules to protect the shortgrass prairie in eastern Colorado, where most of the state’s recent shale drilling has taken place. The commission has to vote on whether to consider the petition or reject it.

The petition would require more planning and oversight to ensure that drilling sites are replanted with native plants, which will provide wildlife habitat and other benefits.

Trevor Pellerite, a law student who helped form the nonprofit prairie initiative, said the group wants to foster a dialog, even if the commission rejects the idea at first.

“Our home run would be a chance to talk to the commission,” he said.

Commission Chairman Tom Compton, a rancher, and Commissioner Richard Alward, an environmental consultant, urged the rest of the commission to take action. A 2007 law requires oil and gas operators to reclaim surface land after they finished extracting oil and gas, but the oil and gas commission hasn’t rewritten regulations to enact the law.

Writing the regulations is a matter of fairness, since the commission just raised its maximum penalty for environmental violations to $10,000 a day, Alward said. He and Compton are scheduled to leave the commission July 1.

“It’s timely, it’s urgent, and we now have a petition before us to proceed with rulemaking,” he said.

Lepore said his staff would look into how much time and effort it would take to write reclamation regulations.

Other commissioners sounded skeptical.

“There is the risk of running into rule fatigue,” said Mike King, executive director of the Department of Natural Resources and a member of the commission.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Trevor Pellerite, who helped form the Colorado Prairie Initiative.
Copyright 2015, Environment and Energy Publishing LLC. Reprinted with permission.