Environmentalists, landowners and the oil and natural gas industry all had changes to propose for Wyoming’s draft rule for testing nearby groundwater before drilling oil and gas wells.
The written comment period for the proposed Sampling and Analysis Procedures for Groundwater Baseline Sampling, Analysis and Monitoring Program expired on Friday. The state received 136 pages of comments, and on Tuesday morning, nearly 50 people attended a hearing at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in Casper to talk about the proposed rule.
Although industry insists that drilling and hydraulic fracturing — the process of pumping water, sand and chemical underground to break open trapped oil and gas — are safe, Gov. Matt Mead and other members of the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission believe the testing will protect companies and landowners who depend on the water around drilling sites. The proposed rule came after residents outside the central Wyoming town of Pavillion said their water was contaminated as a result of fracking, which the industry denies.
The proposed rule would require testing just once before drilling begins. But Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based landowner group, questions even the title of the rule and why it has the word “baseline” in it. She said that contradicts other state agencies’ requirements of four tests to establish a baseline.
“A year’s worth of quarterly testing is what a real baseline testing is,” she said.
Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staffers were at Tuesday’s meeting taking notes, and will review the written comments. They may suggest changes to the proposed rule for the commission to make at its Nov. 12 meeting, said Grant Black, Wyoming oil and gas supervisor.
The commission could adopt the rule sometime after that, but Grant said that the adoption date will be different from the implementation data. It could take the staff some time to figure out how they are going to make public the testing data, which is required in the proposed rule, and implement other aspects of the rule.
John Robitaille, vice president of the Casper-based Petroleum Association of Wyoming would like to see some of the substances required for testing to be removed, such as nitrate, which he said is a product of agriculture — not drilling. Many companies already test groundwater before they start drilling.
Amber Wilson, environmental quality coordinator of the Outdoor Council, said the rule overall is strong.
“We are confident this rule will establish Wyoming as a leader,” she said.
But her organization and the Environmental Defense Fund believe the proposed rule is weak regarding dissolved methane levels. The level of dissolved methane required for reporting to the state is too high, said the EDF’s Jon Goldstein. A lower level could prevent an explosion or another harm.
Mark Hollingsworth of Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy said that he agrees with the proposed dissolved methane level. He disagrees with the lower level requested by environmental groups, which is the smallest level that labs can test for.
Some meeting attendees told the commission they were concerned about the distance required for groundwater testing, wanting water tested a mile from an oil or gas well. The proposed rule would require companies to test water wells and springs used for domestic, livestock, industry, municipal and irrigation within a half-mile radius of each oil and gas wellhead.
Morrison said that oil and gas activity extends beyond a half mile of a well head. Many wells destined to be fracked are drilled horizontally underground away from the well head.
“The horizontal legs go out a mile, maybe two miles in some cases,” Morrison said.