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Ex-Interior official: How clean should we go?

Locations: News Published

Eric Skalac

When it comes to hydraulic fracturing, the web of federal and state environmental regulations have things pretty well covered.

That was the message of Rebecca Watson, former Department of Interior official, told Garfield County Energy Advisory board earlier this month.

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Watson is the former assistant secretary of Lands and Minerals Management for the Department of Interior. She left Washington in 2005, and since then has practiced law in the west, representing renewable and conventional energy clients, logging companies, ranchers and others. Watson currently represents SG Interests, who holds natural gas leases in the Thompson Divide, west of Carbondale.

At the meeting, Watson spoke about the public perception that the oil and gas industry is exempt from big federal environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Though those federal regulations do contain exemptions for the oil and gas industry, according to Watson, state environmental regulations pick up the slack.

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In Colorado, that means environmental regulation by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, covering gaps in the federal laws around things like fracking chemical disclosure, and regulation of methane releases and storm water runoff.

The state has a pretty robust system, Watson said. And though not unique among western states, Watson said Colorado is “ahead of the pack.”

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Watson believes the environmental laws covering oil and gas operations are only getting more stringent, but she’s strongly opposed to hydraulic fracturing bans like those enacted in Longmont and Fort Collins.

“I don’t think that’s the right way to handle this,” Watson said. “Because energy is at the bottom of our whole quality of life and our economic well being.”

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During the meeting, one Carbondale resident questioned Watson about that stance, asking if she’d heard of the Precautionary Principle, which in this case would put the burden of proof on the oil and gas industry to prove that hydraulic fracturing is not harmful to public health or the environment, assuming scientific consensus hasn’t already been reached.

“Yes, but you can be precautionary so that you don’t do anything,” Watson responded. “And if the production of oil and gas is so terrible, we would’ve seen a lot more evidence of it than what we are seeing,” she added, talking about hydraulic fracturing specifically.

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The executive director of the Thompson Divide Coalition was also at the meeting, and though he didn’t ask Watson about the Thompson Divide directly, he did ask about the appropriateness of drilling on public lands in general where there’s existing tourism, agriculture and recreation.

Watson said there were some places where oil and gas drilling wasn’t appropriate, and that the planning process is structured for just that: to help the federal government identify resources on public land and give them input on how those lands should be managed.

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“The public has a huge role to play in helping the federal government decide those questions,” Watson said. She added that in her experience traveling western public lands states with the Department of Interior, she learned that, “it’s pretty hard to find a piece of ground that somebody doesn’t think is special.”

Ultimately, Watson described a fine balance between regulation that protects our natural resources and public health, and regulation that allows the country’s oil and natural gas to be developed economically. She thinks citizens need to look critically at environmental regulations.

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“How clean do we go?” she asked. “Because none of our environmental laws require no discharge. We do discharge pollution into waterways. But it’s regulated so that it doesn’t impair the standards that EPA and the states have determined necessary to support the uses of those waters.”  

And as far as fracking bans? “Well, that’s just not realistic,” she said. “That’s not the way we do things in the U.S. What we do do is we look at it, we regulate it, we subject it to the scrutiny of the public, to litigation, and we regulate industries in that fashion. Because we have to have an economy as well.”

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Eric Skalac is a reporter for KDNK.