DENVER - The director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says it's time to consider statewide rules on baseline groundwater sampling and monitoring at new well pads, which could show when drilling operations have contaminated groundwater supplies and when they haven't.
For the last several months, the state has been holding meetings with oil and gas industry representatives, community leaders and other stakeholders to discuss revising the state's so-called "setback" rules on how far wells must be from buildings.
Late Friday, commission director Matt Lepore emailed stakeholders an early outline of suggested revisions, based on the meetings. But he said there's much more discussion to come.
The outline represents a starting point for more discussion with parties affected by drilling activities, whether it's the companies themselves, farmers, homebuilders, environmentalists, mineral rights holders, communities or developers.
It includes the new groundwater sampling proposal but also a proposed requirement for a public hearing and commission approval before wellheads can be placed within 750 feet of schools, hospitals, or other high-occupancy buildings.
It also generally suggests keeping wells at least 350 feet away from other buildings. Wells today must be at least 350 feet from buildings in high-density areas or 150 feet away in rural areas.
"We've been pushing for at least 1,000 feet," said Frank Smith of Western Colorado Congress, which supports environmental stewardship.
For now, there's a suggestion that drillers be required to collect initial groundwater samples from the two closest water wells, springs or surface water bodies within a mile of a proposed drilling location and take another sample 12 to 18 months later. Another collection would be taken at the final reclamation of a site.
Lepore noted most Colorado wells already fall under state groundwater sampling requirements or a voluntary sampling program launched last year by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group.
"It is time to consider a statewide rule that would continue Colorado's role as a leader in sensible, environmentally responsible industry regulation," he wrote.
COGA was reviewing Lepore's email and said Monday it was looking forward to engaging in more discussions.
The stakeholders meet again Thursday.
"While conceptual in nature, we believe the setback revisions outlined represent a reasoned and responsible approach to balancing many competing interests, and to mitigating the impacts of oil and gas operations on nearby residences and other occupied buildings," Lepore wrote.
Communities have taken more interest in regulations for oil and gas companies as advances have allowed firms to tap resources that were once hard to reach, including some resources underneath areas like Erie or Longmont that have been adding homes.
"There's been a headlong rush to develop the Niobrara shale play, and you've got suburbs where they may have not been previously," Smith said. "The real issue at hand is we need to have earnest collaboration between public health officials and regulators."