By The Denver Post
We can't say we're shocked that two days of hearings at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in December failed to resolve debates over groundwater testing around drilling sites and the appropriate buffer zones between drilling and occupied structures.
Still, we were disappointed that more progress toward consensus wasn't in evidence, especially around groundwater testing.
The issue of drilling setbacks in populated areas was always going to be sticky because people simply don't agree on how close energy development should be allowed to their homes. And that's especially true given the widespread use of hydraulic fracturing, about which opinion tends to be passionate.
So perhaps it's not surprising that various interest groups remain far apart, much as we'd like to see a consensus emerge.
By contrast, a solution that protects Coloradans' health and safety from contaminated groundwater shouldn't be nearly as difficult and yet agreement has been elusive on that issue as well.
But why? After all, every major stakeholder in the rule-making discussion supports the idea of Colorado enacting the nation's first mandate for testing water wells around new drilling sites both before and after operations. The key disagreements are over how many water sources to test, which ones and how (or if) to allow exceptions to the rules.
There isn't only one acceptable answer to these questions. If that were the case, the debate would have concluded long ago. Instead, a range of possible solutions exists that would probably achieve regulators' goals. It's the commission's task to settle on one that is justified by the evidence as well as acceptable to a broad swath of Coloradans.
We've said from the beginning that all sides should be prepared to concede ground on both groundwater testing and setbacks in the interest of reassuring the public. Public safety is paramount, but the industry's contribution to Colorado's economic welfare and our nation's energy supply is critical, too.
And industry has hardly been passive. For example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association recently filed suit against Longmont in an attempt to overturn its voter-approved ban on fracking within city limits.
If state rules don't go far enough to meet public concerns, of course, the legislature could step in and impose a testing program that leaves even fewer parties satisfied.
Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, has reportedly filed a bill outlawing new wells within 2,000 feet of homes and schools absent permission by local government. Even most environmental advocates haven't demanded that big a setback.
Before the debate is over, Gov. John Hickenlooper may have to exert his influence at least behind the scenes to steer this process toward a reasonable conclusion.