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‘It helps to be irritating’

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Sarah Gilman | Feb 12, 2013 04:00 AM

Colorado’s North Fork Valley – where High Country News makes its home– recently received news that had many residents cheering and hugging on Paonia’s three-block main drag and at the local brewery. On Feb. 6, the Bureau of Land Management announced it would defer the sale of more than 20,000 acres of controversial oil and gas leases that wreath the valley’s three tiny communities, which are also home to thriving organic and conventional farms, wineries, and three large underground coal mines. Over the past year and a half, many residents sent letters to the BLM and packed public meetings to express worries that oil and gas development could harm the area’s water and air quality and wildlife habitat, as well as its burgeoning tourism and local food economy (not to mention that booming natural gas has done no favors for the coal industry). They asked the agency to at least hold off on any leasing until its 1989 management plan for the area is updated to meet advances in drilling technology with stiffer environmental protections, as well as account for changes in the local community and economy.

BLM v paonia

“We’ve listened to concerns raised in numerous comments and public meetings and we are responding by deferring the North Fork Valley parcels at this time,” Colorado State BLM Director Helen Hankins said in a prepared statement. It's the second time the agency has deferred the parcels. Last time, they ended up reducing the acres offered by a third, removing key parcels next to water supplies and recreation areas. What the BLM does after further study this time is anybody's guess, but at the very least Paonia won't be biting its knuckles on Valentines Day, when the sale was to take place.

Clearly, “it helps to be irritating,” HCN Writers on the Range editor Betsy Marston told KVNF, our local community radio station, with a grin. In other words, the local victory is a great reminder that, to effect change, especially in land management decisions, you have to be engaged and you have to be loud.

That’s one of the things we can thank the nationwide drilling boom for: A new level of citizen engagement and outcry over impacts that has itself forced some improvements in state and federal policies governing energy development and protecting public health and the environment.

For example, after a year-long process with extensive public comment, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission yesterday enacted new rules (effective this August) that it says set “a new standard for the Rocky Mountain West, (since) they exceed in every aspect requirements in our neighboring states of Kansas, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Nebraska and Arizona.”

According to a release, those reforms forbid drilling within 500 feet of homes (under the old rules setbacks were 150-350 feet). They also require companies drilling within 1,000 feet of an occupied structure to use closed loop drilling systems that eliminate open waste pits that off-gas into the air, meet liner standards to protect against spills, reduce emissions by capturing gases, and meet strict controls on noise, dust and light pollution. If those structures happen to be schools, nursing homes, hospitals, and other buildings housing large numbers of people, the company must submit to a formal hearing before the oil and gas commission.

The rulemaking follows another landmark COGCC decision last month, according to the Associated Press, which required companies to sample groundwater wells within a half a mile of proposed drilling sites before drilling, and at regular intervals after drilling, so that possible contamination can be both detected and traced back to its source.

No other state requires both, the AP says, but Wyoming regulators are now also looking into requiring energy companies to establish a local groundwater-quality baseline before drilling. "Most of the large operators do it but not all operators do it. It really can protect citizens, protect the state, protect the industry," Jerimiah Rieman, natural resources adviser to Gov. Matt Mead, told the AP. It’s an unexpected move from a state that depends so heavily on oil and gas revenue, but it also makes sense given the public outcry and bureaucratic deadlock over groundwater contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. The Environmental Protection Agency  linked pollution there to energy development, but is now reviewing its findings, with a public comment period on its report extended until this September, nearly two years after it was first initiated.

The Interior Department’s release last year of proposed rules that would finally regulate certain aspects of hydraulic fracturing on lands BLM manages was also probably due in large part to increased public concern about the practice. But loud public engagement swings both ways. As I reported in a blog back then, the Obama administration had bowed to industry pressure on at least one aspect of the rules, allowing companies to wait until 30 days after a well is drilled to publicly disclose the chemical composition of fracking fluids injected into the ground to aid hydrocarbon production. That’s certainly an improvement on the status quo, where companies may have little or no reporting requirement depending on what state they’re drilling in. But it also seems to miss the point.

And now, Interior seems to again be yielding to industry pressure on chemical disclosure. On Jan. 18, it withdrew its proposed rules for further review to make improvements for “maximum flexibility.” And according to an unreleased draft of the revision obtained by Energywire (subscription required), it now plans to allow companies to disclose those chemicals through an industry-backed database called BLM had previously indicated that the website did not require companies to disclose enough information, Energywire reports, and environmentalists worry over the fact that “companies would no longer be required to give BLM an explanation of why they were claiming trade secret protection (for the constituents of their fracking fluid). Instead, operators could simply withhold the information and promise it was proprietary. BLM would reserve the right to request it.”

Just as the North Fork’s victory vindicates public involvement as a strategy to influence land-use decisions, so should industry’s victories remind activists fighting for stronger regulation to stay engaged and vigilant. Or, to put it as Betsy might, with a big smile and a laugh, to go right on being loud and irritating.

Sarah Gilman is High Country News’ associate editor

Image: North Fork residents crowd into a public meeting between BLM and Paonia Town Council regarding the proposed lease sale. Andrew Cullen.

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