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How Colorado protects water from oil and gas contamination

From setbacks to corrective actions, the state aims to hold operators accountable. But some Coloradans are still worried.
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Posted at 9:30 PM, Sep 29, 2023

DENVER — For most Coloradans, the sound of a babbling brook conjures up feelings of relaxation and connection to nature. But for some, it’s a reminder of what we stand to lose.

“Water is life. Water is precious. And a lot of water is used up and made permanently toxic by fracking. Not to mention that spills and leaks from oil and gas can contaminate our groundwater and our surface water,” said Bobbie Mooney, an organizer with the grassroots group 350 Colorado. “To have spaces like this risking contamination from oil and gas is really upsetting and concerning because once it's contaminated, there's really no undoing that."

Mooney isn’t alone in those concerns. A Denver7 viewer recently wrote in to ask us how Colorado is protecting our water from potential contamination by the oil and gas industry. To find out, we talked with an industry representative, a climate activist, a public health researcher and the state’s regulatory agencies.

“We're Coloradans. We value clean air. We value clean water,” said Dan Haley, who represents the industry as the president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "We're drinking the same water that they're drinking. We live in the neighborhoods where we work. And so, we have every reason to get it right.”

Haley said Colorado’s oil and gas companies are working with the state to take necessary steps to prevent water contamination.

"Whether that is a setback, whether that is the latest technology, innovations happening out in the field, deploying those resources here in Colorado to make sure we're doing right by the environment, doing right by our neighbors,” he said.

Those setbacks and other regulations are created and enforced by Colorado’s Energy and Carbon Management Commission, previously known as the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The commission updated its rules in 2020 because of “Colorado’s growing reliance on groundwater due to increased demand from population and climate change.”

Now when a company drills for oil or gas, the state requires them to isolate the well from the surrounding rock and groundwater by installing multiple layers of metal casing and cement. Those rules are supposed to apply for the whole life of the well, until it’s plugged or abandoned. Companies are supposed to regularly monitor and test the well to make sure holes or leaks don’t develop over time.

well casing diagram from COGA
Colorado requires oil and gas operators to use multiple layers of concrete and metal casing when drilling a well.

“The integrity of these new wells that we are drilling now are solid, probably for all time,” Haley said. But older wells “don't have the same wellbore integrity,” which is why the industry and the state are focused on appropriately plugging those wells, he said.

More broadly, the Energy and Carbon Management Commission monitors the industry by requiring companies to self-report problems like spills or releases and collecting complaints from community members. When the commission learns of potential violations, their staff will inspect, investigate and sometimes issue corrective actions and penalties.

Denver7 analyzed the commission’s records and found at least 10 times companies violated the state’s water quality standards in recent years. Most of those situations involved a spill of oil, gas or contaminated wastewater that made its way into a body of water, usually a creek or stream.

For example, in 2020, the commission received a complaint that the operator KP Kauffman dumped contaminated soil from a spill in a field near wetlands and a pond recognized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Given the “significant adverse environmental impacts,” the commission ordered KP Kauffman to clean up the contamination and pay a penalty. But two years later, the company still hadn’t completed the corrective actions for this or several other violations, totaling $1.8 million in penalties.

"It's really frustrating when we see these repeat offenders receiving merely a slap on the wrist by the state and allowed to continue to operate at tremendous risk to our health and our environment,” Mooney said.

In addition to risks of spills, Kyle Ferrar, a public health researcher who helped create the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, said the process of fracking also uses up large quantities of freshwater.

“Over the last five years, consumption for hydraulic fracturing operations has pretty much more than doubled in Colorado,” Ferrar said.

Currently, a single well can require up to 40 million gallons of freshwater. Once freshwater has been used for fracking, it becomes contaminated and must be disposed of as a form of toxic waste. Usually, companies inject that wastewater into the ground, containing it in what’s called a Class II well. Less frequently, companies store it in tanks or open pits.

“Historically, it's just been cheaper to use fresh water,” Ferrar said. “The priority should be shifting from disposing of the wastewater in injection wells to recycling the wastewater and reusing it for future hydraulic fracturing operations."

That’s why Colorado is now trying to increase recycling of fracking water. But with future oil and gas operations planned on the Front Range where most Coloradans live, Mooney said she's still concerned.

"Coloradans rely on a beautiful and healthy natural environment for agriculture, for our tourism industry, and for our own health and safety. And fracking poses a risk to all of that,” she said.