Benzene found in spring from Gas Well Drilling?

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In some bad news for the oil and gas industry — benzene has been found in spring water used by a cabin near Parachute — according to a report in today’s Examiner. From the article, “The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issued a Notice of Alleged Violation to four energy companies after tests found benzene water at the cabin outside Parachute in western Colorado.”

Benzene, according to Wikipedia:

“…is an organic chemical compound and a known carcinogen…Benzene is a colorless and highly flammable liquid with a sweet smell and a relatively high melting point. Because of this, its use as an additive in gasoline is now limited, but it is an important industrial solvent and precursor in the production of drugs, plastics, synthetic rubber, and dyes. Benzene is a natural constituent of crude oil, but it is usually synthesized from other compounds present in petroleum.”

To their credit two of the operators cited by the COGCC in the area are investigating the contamination. A third company had no comment. I’m assuming that their attorneys are afraid of a finding by the OGCC that they are the point source for the groundwater pollution. The fourth company cited does not have a listed number.

Oil and gas industry supporters are in the midst of squaring off with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission over proposed new rules for exploration and production on state land. The battle so far is over proposed rules for mitigating the effects on wildlife, but simmering underneath the controversy is whether or not current rules and practices are sufficient to protect Colorado resources such as groundwater. The industry is largely united around opposition to the new rules. Many in Las Animas county have come out against them. However, the credibility of the adequacy of existing protections is called into question with this benzene news.

Groundwater contamination is not easy to predict or mitigate. Sub-surface geology is difficult to map with accuracy and is still largely guesswork. Add the porous qualities of some rock along with the fracturing of formations due to geologic and human events and you have this dependency on the skills and good will of oil and gas developers. The engineering is pretty good nowadays but unscrupulous or unlucky operators can cause harm to the groundwater resource. It’s often impossible to determine the extent of groundwater pollution after it happens let alone fully prevent it. Cleanups are horribly expensive and the responsibility often falls on government.

Colorado is rich in natural gas deposits and drilling is booming over in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties. County infrastructure is being stressed by all the traffic and demands place on it by the population boom accompanying the drilling boom. Last year’s reorganization of the COGCC was touted as replacing an industry-centered board with a board that would consider environmental issues, along with producer profit, in governing the operations. Ed Quillen, summed up the opinion of many around the state in a recent Denver Post column, writing:

The water of Colorado belongs to the people of Colorado. And thanks to gas drillers, various people of Colorado have found methane and benzene in their water. Let’s face it. The drillers are here for one purpose: To make as much money as they can, as fast as they can, just like the earlier gold and silver mine owners. If it’s asking too much for them, in the process of sending Colorado natural gas to California, to follow some rules to protect our property – our wildlife and our water – then goodbye and good riddance, the sooner the better.

Get involved if you have the time. There is a lot going on across the state in anticipation of the COGCC rules setting meeting in August.

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