Gas Spill Fuels Crackdown on Industry

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4min 02sec

[Photos of the Parachute Creek cleanup courtesy of Bruce Gordon, Ecoflight]

The state House could vote as early as this week on an overhaul of the state’s oil and gas regulating panel. Front Range Democrats are pushing an aggressive agenda to crack down on the industry, and they’ve pounced on a Western Slope gas spill, using it to make their case for beefed up enforcement of the state’s more than 50-thousand active wells.

This is a transcript of a report from CPR's Ben Markus:

Reporter Ben Markus: The small Western Slope town of Parachute is easy to miss off I-70, but for town manager Bob Knight, this is his world. We’re standing next to Parachute Creek, which flows through the town all the way to the Colorado River, when suddenly dozens of wild turkeys run by.

Bob Knight: Boy, if you want to eat some stringy bird, we got lots of birds around here.

Reporter: It’s hard to imagine that just a mile downstream, there’s a big gas spill that threatens this creek, which provides irrigation and water for nearby grazing cattle. Natural gas companies Williams and WPX found the leak while expanding their nearby gas plant. They declined to show us the cleanup effort.

Knight: The speculation is that, "oh, what are they hiding? We’re not letting the news media down there." What do you mean, "What are you hiding?" You’ve got the Division of Wildlife, you’ve got COGCC, you’ve got Colorado Department of Health. It’D have to be a really, really huge conspiracy.

Reporter: Tests of groundwater wells near the creek found benzene, a chemical linked to cancer, at more than 3,000 times what the state considers safe. The creek itself is clean so far, but nearly a month after the discovery, the source of the leak is still unknown. 200 miles to the east, in Denver, State Senator Matt Jones says that’s why he introduced a bill that will quadruple the number of oil and gas inspectors.

Matt Jones: That Parachute Creek spill is exhibit A on this, because that is typically how we find problems - somebody goes out there, digs to make improvements to a site, and then they self report, which is great, but wouldn’t it be great if the inspectors found that?

Reporter: Senator Jones is from Longmont, a hotbed of the anti-fracking movement. He is one of a handful of Democrats from Boulder County and Fort Collins pushing a slew of oil and gas bills that would bring sweeping change to how the industry is regulated.

Doug Flanders: They are aggressive, and I think when you’re having a one-sided dialogue that tends to happen.

Reporter: Doug Flanders is with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group. He doesn’t necessarily disagree with all the bills. Like, he’s not against increasing fines for rule violations for the first time since the 1950’s; and he’s not against adding more inspectors. But he says the bills go too far.

Flanders: It is a question of scale, because at some point, where do you, where is that tipping point where you’re not actually helping the situation because you have so much?

Reporter: But one bill is a red line. It would strip industry employees of seats on the state’s regulatory commission and would also change the panel's mission, allowing it to make rules that leave oil and gas in the ground. Flanders says that will hit mineral owners hard, but environmentalists like Pete Maysmith with Conservation Colorado say it’s long overdue.

Pete Maysmith: Let's have the regulatory body focus like a laser beam on protecting Coloradans, our public health, our air, and our land, and our water.

Reporter: He says the Parachute Creek spill is an example of why more needs to be done. But back at the edge of that creek, Parachute town manager Bob Knight says more inspectors wouldn’t have found this underground leak. Industry did, while expanding the plant, and the companies reported it quickly. He wonders if some of the reaction on the Front Range is just out of fear, now that the energy boom has hit the east slope.

Knight: I guess until you’ve been there and done that, you can be afraid of it - something new.

Reporter: Besides, he says, energy will never be squeaky clean, but it still has to come from somewhere.

Article corrected 4/4/2013: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified one of the natural gas companies on site at Parachute Creek as WXP. The correct name of the company is WPX.

[Photos: Bruce Gordon, Ecoflight]