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New rules on water testing

State oil and gas regulators passed new groundwater testing rules Monday that we think should reassure Coloradans that contamination of drinking water in this era of hydraulic fracturing would be discovered and dealt with.

The new rules require testing water wells prior to drilling new oil or gas wells and twice afterwards, a requirement the nine-member Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says is “unprecedented among other states.”

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), a trade organization, agrees that they’re unprecedented, but quickly criticized their adoption as “excessive and unnecessary.”

We think COGA is off base, and that the commission made every effort to protect the health of residents without unfairly burdening industry.

Further, environmental groups aren’t thrilled with the new testing rules, either, which they don’t think go far enough.

We were also glad to see the commission reject an industry attempt to suppress much of the written testimony and exhibits submitted by critics of their operations regarding the even more contentious issue of drilling setback requirements.

Industry groups maintained that critics’ testimony was replete with hearsay as well as scientific and medical claims made by non-experts and was thus barred under Colorado rules of evidence.

But as the commission hearing officer, Casey Shpall, pointed out, the panel is not a court of law and the most rigorous standards for evidence needn’t apply.

She also reminded the commission that its hearings are an attempt to “address some of the nuisance impacts associated with existing setbacks for oil and gas operations that are affecting the public’s welfare and quality of life.” Yet how could the commission properly assess those impacts without hearing the full range of opinion about them?

We can’t imagine why the commission, in its effort to be fair, wouldn’t want to hear such critics out.

That doesn’t mean it has to accept their opinion as medical fact. It would signal, however, that commissioners are determined to understand what some people think nearby oil and gas development is doing to them — an important insight for regulators to keep in mind even if they don’t agree.

At Monday’s hearing, an industry official told the commission, “This may not be a court of law, but it shouldn’t be a free-for-all.”

He’s right, of course, but as the commission recognized, those aren’t the only options.

The Denver Post

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