On March 20 Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project released a new report, COGCC: Inadequate enforcement means current Colorado oil and gas development is irresponsible. Part of a national assessment of state oil and gas regulatory enforcement, highlights of the Colorado-specific findings include:
- As the number of wells drilled increases in Colorado, the number of inspections is decreasing.
- It is physically impossible for existing Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) inspection staff to inspect every well once per year.
- Many rule violations are not recorded, and very few violators are penalized.
- For those who are penalized, $1000/day maximum fines are inadequate to deter irresponsible operations.
“The COGCC’s mission is to foster responsible oil and gas development by balancing drilling with protection of landowners, public health and the environment,” said Gwen Lachelt, Earthworks’ OGAP director. “Right now, the COGCC’s rules, like its mission statement, are just empty words on a page. There is no balance here,” she said.
As this report is released, the Colorado Legislature is considering whether to follow Pennsylvania in stripping local governments of the ability to regulate oil and gas development. If local control is removed, only the COGCC will regulate drilling within the state. Other legislative proposals would require counties to adopt ‘a one size fits all’ set of oil and gas regulations rather than being able to adapt to local conditions. On Colorado’s Front Range, which is experiencing a drilling boom, many local governments are considering ordinances that prohibit drilling within city limits, in part because of the state’s inadequate enforcement.
“When it comes to oil and gas drilling oversight, the Legislature should not make things worse,” said Bruce Baizel, Earthworks’ OGAP senior staff attorney. “This report shows that the COGCC does not have it covered when it comes to drilling oversight. If anything, the Legislature should consider slowing COGCC’s permitting until they get their house in order,” said Baizel.
The COGCC’s role in enforcing state regulations is particularly important because many federal environmental statutes contain special exemptions for the oil and gas industry.
“The COGCC’s failure to enforce its own rules highlights the need to close oil and gas loopholes in the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act,” said Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ policy director. “COGCC’s inadequate performance shows why citizens need to have federal standards, as well as state regulations. In Colorado’s case, state regulation means inadequate regulation, and therefore, irresponsible development,” she said.
The report closes with common-sense recommendations to improve COGCC enforcement of oil and gas development regulations including increasing inspection staff, standardizing and publicizing inspections, and increasing fines for violations.
“Responsible gas development cannot occur without adequate enforcement,” said Earthworks’ Gwen Lachelt. “To fulfill its mission to ‘foster responsible development’, COGCC must hire enough inspectors to adequately enforce existing regulations, publicly report and track violations, and use penalties to provide a credible deterrent to irresponsible operations.”
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