Fair treatment for oil and gas
I was down at my favorite fishing spot yesterday and spring was in the air (and in the water). The Rainbows and Cuts are starting to spawn down in the Canyon. When the snow starts to melt and swell the streams it brings in sediment and debris. The river is “off color” as it grows, but hasn’t yet reached the full ruddy hue of runoff. The spawning fish move out of the heavier main channel and up in to the clear water tributaries like Grizzly and Deep Creeks.Sediment is a natural part of a streams hydrology. It is the “bed load” that helps shape and form the structure of the channel. The river has used this load and adapted to it, and so have the fish and wildlife. It’s when the sediment load becomes too much that bad things start to happen, and a lot of extra sediment gets into the river because of human activity.Sediment is the biggest water quality problem in the Colorado River basin, according to the Colorado Water Quality Control Division. The soils of western Colorado are already prone to washing into the streams and they have been getting a lot of help from us over the years. Any disturbance that exposes the ground to the elements invites erosion. Over grazing and construction sites are the biggest culprits.The National Resources Conservation Service was created to help prevent soil erosion back in the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s. More recently, the EPA and State of Colorado have required anyone who disturbs more than an acre of land to file for a Storm Water Discharge Permit. They have to provide a plan showing how the site will be graded and drained and how sediment eroding from the construction site will be caught and kept from polluting our rivers and streams. These Best Management Practices (BMP’s) are an accepted part of land development. Developers who fail to comply or maintain their sites find the fines and penalties can be substantial.It is a little bit of reasonable prevention that goes a long way to protect some of our most valuable natural assets, or rivers and streams.Unbelievably the oil and gas industry has, up until now, managed to keep themselves exempt from these same permits and requirements. Is oil and gas development, the grading of drilling and well pads, building access roads and trenching miles of pipeline so different from every other form of development that they deserve an exemption? The industry has never provided any evidence that they are somehow different. The EPA granted a two-year extension of this exemption, giving the industry time beyond the original six years to explain why they should be exempt, why the soil they disturb is somehow different. That extension just expired and EPA decided that these poor folks needed even more time to “study” the situation.The Colorado Water Quality Control Commission last week decided otherwise. Enough is enough. The oil and gas industry is one of the largest and fastest growing land developers in Colorado. The soft, erodable soils here don’t care who owns the bulldozer. For this one industry to be exempt while all others must comply is simply not justifiable. The WQCC voted 6 2 to make the oil and gas industry comply with Storm Water discharge permits as of June 30.The COGA (Colorado Oil and Gas Association) representative did object, claiming that the cost of compliance was onerous and might be an impediment to local economies, cost jobs and be an unacceptable burden for the American consumer. Strange, complying with Storm Water Discharge permits haven’t stopped land development anywhere else in Colorado. It hasn’t even slowed it down.The industry spokesman also claimed that other land developers have some sort of luxury in the “lead time” they have to get all their permits in order. What lead time? No land developer makes a dime until they start selling units. The sooner they can start “producing”, the better, just like in the oil and gas business. Logistical nightmares and lost time plague any developer, not just the “special folks” in oil and gas.We all recognize that we need wells to provide oil and gas. That doesn’t mean that the industry is somehow unique and special, deserving of special favors. They have been running roughshod all over western Colorado for quite some time now and need to be reined in. They need to start showing a little respect for the people and the place of western Colorado.This is an industry used to getting their way and unused to constraints. I worry that even as they claim to be responsible stewards of the land that they will continue their old degrading habits. With just a little effort the oil and gas industry could cleanup much of its act.Meanwhile I watch the river rise and the color change. I keep an eye on construction sites and watch for unusually heavy sediment flowing in. The spawning trout will do just fine, if we can keep the mud from smothering the redds as the eggs develop and hatch down in the gravel. Watch where you step out there in the river!Ken Neubecker writes about water and the environment for the Vail Trail. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.