Water monitoring bill moves on, widening rift between Democrats, Hickenlooper

Politics

After three more Colorado communities voted Tuesday to ban fracking, Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has defended the oil and gas industry, finds himself facing a rising insurrection from within his own party.

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DENVER -- Democratic lawmakers Thursday moved forward with another bill opposed by Colorado's oil and gas industry and Gov. John Hickenlooper, intensifying an ongoing intra-party fight over fracking.

House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst got a visit Thursday morning from Hickenlooper's chief lobbyist, Christine Scanlan, who informed her that the administration opposed her proposal to alter the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's rule on groundwater testing, which was passed last year and has been heralded by Hickenlooper as "the strongest law in the nation."

Moments later, Hullinghorst headed into a pre-scheduled press availability with reporters in Speaker Mark Ferrandino's office and let it be known that Hickenlooper has been the main obstacle to the caucus's oil and gas proposals.

Later Thursday afternoon, as she introduced House Bill 1316 before the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee, she pulled no punches.

"The rule that we have for water quality monitoring is if not the worst, close to the worst in the country," Hullinghorst told lawmakers.

Her bill would close a loophole in the groundwater testing rule approved last year that applies a looser testing regime on the Greater Wattenburg Area, where a quarter of the state's new oil and gas activity development is taking place.

The current testing regime in the GWA -- one water source in each quarter section -- is much looser than the four sources per section requirement applied to the rest of the state; and the companies that own the wells get to decide where to test the water, regardless of the proximity or gradient to the well itself.

"The Wattenburg area deserves not less scrutiny but at least as much scrutiny as the rest of the basins in the state," said Dan Grossman, a former state lawmaker who testified on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The bill's co-sponsor, Rep. Joe Salazar, also argued that the cost of additional tests to oil and gas companies -- each test costs about $1,800 -- isn't a great burden given that each well produces an average of $3 million in revenue.

The bill cleared the committee on a 6-5 party-line vote; but if it gets all the way to Hickenlooper's desk, it's a prime candidate for a veto.

"The Greater Wattenburg Area does merit a different groundwater regime than we've put in place in the rest of the state," said the COGCC's director, Matt Lepore, who reminded lawmakers that the rule was approved unanimously by the committee last year.

The Colorado Petroleum Association also argued that the legislation subverts the mission of the COGCC.

"This bill takes Colorado further down the road of making policy on the fly instead of through our well-established stakeholder process," said the group's president, Stan Dempsey, in a statement.

According to Lepore, applying the same requirement of four samples per section would be overkill, given the large number of oil and gas wells across the Greater Wattenburg Area.

"You end up with 10s of thousands of water samplings going on," he said. "At some point there are diminishing returns."

Lepore also took issue with Hullinghorst's criticism of the rule itself. Like Hickenlooper, he argued it's the strongest in the country.

"We are still the only state in the country that requires post-drilling sampling," he said. "We are one of only four states that requires any sampling at all."

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