Colorado on Monday established new mandatory water sampling requirements for oil and natural gas drilling drawing criticism from industry and environmental groups. Sampling of multiple water wells before and after drilling is now required.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) set the water sampling requirements after the first day of three days of scheduled hearings through Wednesday in Denver. It will next take up draft rules expanding setback requirements for oil/gas wells (see Shale Daily, Jan. 7; Dec. 14, 2012).

While expressing the association’s support for “a statewide groundwater baseline sampling program,” a spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) said what is needed is a “balancing of responsible energy development with environmental stewardship,” and “unfortunately this new rule does not seem to meet that balance.”

In a similar vein, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) criticized COGCC for “ignoring accepted scientific practice” by adopting “the weakest rule in the nation” for testing groundwater around oil and gas operations.

Dan Grossman, EDF Rocky Mountain regional director, said COGCC “failed to adopt a rigorous, science-based program to adequately assess whether our groundwater is being protected.”

COGCC said it approved “pioneering new groundwater protection rules considered among the strongest in the country,” claiming that only two other states have mandatory groundwater programs and no other state requires post-drilling sampling.

“This new set of groundwater monitoring rules once again puts Colorado in the forefront of thoughtful and progressive regulatory oversight of energy development,” said Matt Lepore, COGCC director. “We worked earnestly with many stakeholders to develop a groundwater rule that provides strong protections and that we believe strikes the right balance among many interested parties.”

However, COGA wanted the state to “build off successes” of past voluntary programs, such as the “basin-specific water testing programs” completed last year, “including a statewide voluntary groundwater monitoring program” put in place a year ago. It listed a number of sampling programs supported last year by COGA.

EDF argued that COGCC’s program falls by exempting the heavily drilled Greater Wattenberg area, capping the number of water sources and including no requirements on how water samples are to be collected and tested.

Unlike other areas, in Wattenberg COGCC requires only one water source to be tested before and after drilling, compared to elsewhere in which up to four water wells within a half-mile radius of a new well will have to be tested prior to drilling, within six to 12 months after the well is completed, and again between five and six years after completion.

COGCC said it included the exception for the Wattenberg area because of a “combination of energy development, agriculture and other industrial and residential use unique to the area.” In addition, the state agency said its program would now exist “side-by-side” with a “well developed” Weld County program that provides water well testing to any operator requesting it.

A COGCC spokesperson said approval of the sampling rule follows “months of stakeholder discussions designed to craft a rule that protects well owners and the industry.” He said the rule should “generate the necessary data to help regulators determine whether oil/gas activities have impacted drinking water or whether other factors could be affecting groundwater.”