Let’s Not Mix Oil and Water

By David Nickum

Colorado Trout Unlimited Executive Director


Coloradans are feeling the pain of the energy crunch, and the state is doing its part to address our energy needs.  But oil and gas aren’t the most valuable resources in this state by any measure. Without clean water, life - let alone economic growth – is impossible.


After eight years of record drilling increases, our elected representatives have ordered the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to update its rules to provide protections for wildlife and public health. No industry likes change. But in its attempts to influence the rulemaking process, the oil and gas industry has built a PR campaign based on scare tactics and wildly inaccurate statements opposing some very reasonable new natural resource protections. Unfortunately, it seems to be working. For the time being, state officials have backpedaled and retracted some common sense proposals, particularly in regard to an issue important to all Coloradans, the protection of our rivers, streams, and lakes.


Colorado is famous for the quality of our water and the spectacular landscapes that support our wildlife. This is the real foundation basis of our economy’s strength, and the foundation for sustainable industries such as hunting and angling.   In Colorado, fishing alone generates an estimated $1.4 billion in annual economic activity and supports more than 11,000 jobs. But the health of our rivers touches all of us – delivering drinking water to our cities, providing irrigation water for our farms, sustaining the riparian corridors needed by 65 percent of our wildlife species, and providing scenic and recreational values that make Colorado one of America’s best places to live.


As recent incidents clearly demonstrate, oil and gas development can pose significant  risks to water quality.  A series of spills in the Parachute Creek drainage last winter sent slugs of sediment and an unknown cocktail of chemicals downstream. We don’t know the exact chemicals; industry won’t disclose that information because they claim it’s a trade secret. But we do know that these substances can smother the stream gravels that are essential habitat for fish spawning, and wipe out the aquatic insects on which they feed.


Moreover, drillers use chemicals and produce byproducts that can create human health problems, such as the increased cancer risks from exposure to benzene, as noted in a recently released study of health issues in Garfield County. The state is currently investigating four companies for a spill that contaminated a Garfield County spring and drinking water supply that made its owner ill. As with spills on the Roan Plateau this winter, the companies implicated in the spill failed to report it to state officials in a timely fashion.


In light of these events, it seems remarkable that the industry’s ferocious lobbying campaign seems to be working. Initially, the Commission proposed requiring oil and gas activities to leave 300-foot buffers for all of Colorado’s waters, with the opportunity to make exceptions by consulting with the Division of Wildlife.  The Commission recently weakened those draft rules to cover only cutthroat trout and Gold Medal streams.  With the stroke of a pen 95% of Colorado’s waterways lost even the most reasonable protections.


Buffer strips are not just a matter of common sense; they’re required by local governments for almost all industrial and residential development.  Even backpackers on our National Forest lands are expected to set up their camps at least 100 feet from any water source. Does it make any sense to grant a chemical-dependent, accident-prone major industry this kind of exemption? Of course not.


Colorado’s energy reserves are a valuable resource that should – and will – be developed regardless of new regulations.  But our waters are an even more precious resource that will sustain us long after the rigs have packed up and moved on. Asking drillers to respect our water and the life that depends on it is merely responsible government. Asking anything less is not enough.