Farmer irked by leaky gas well near home seeks bigger fine for Encana

Farmer irked by leaky gas well near home seeks bigger fine for Encana by Bruce Finley, November 15, 2012, The Denver Post
A Longmont-area farmsteader irked about odor, noise and leaks from gas wells by his house — whose complaints drove state regulators to negotiate a $15,000 fine against Encana — marched back to the regulators Thursday demanding tougher punishment. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation commissioners agreed to let Rod Brueske make his case at a formal hearing in the coming weeks. It was an unusual episode reflecting rising expectations for stricter enforcement as drilling expands near communities along Colorado’s Front Range. State staffers at a monthly commission meeting told Brueske the fine they negotiated is nearly the maximum that Colorado law allows. “The state statute is outdated. The fines you are giving Encana are a slap in the face to the citizens of Colorado,” said Brueske, 52. For a company, he said, such a fine “is a minor inconvenience.”

Colorado’s law limits COGCC fines to no more than $1,000 a day for violations. It also lets residents object and request hearings challenging penalties. Brueske complained in April about gas vapors and leaks from wells about 1,150 feet from his house on 2.7 acres in eastern Boulder County, state records show. State inspectors visited the wells. The inspectors are stretched because energy companies have drilled 49,236 wells in Colorado, and the number of spills has increased from 371 in 2009 to 527 last year. (State data show 317 spills this year through October.) At the scene, inspectors found a wellhead leak. They found an unsealed tank and condensate with odors escaping. They found an emission- control device too small to handle vapors, records show. Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment air-quality officials got involved and are handling air issues separately. Encana crews quickly fixed the problem. “We obey the rules and regulations and go above and beyond when we can,” Encana community-relations adviser Wendy Wiedenbeck said Thursday after the hearing.

Brueske “has the right to pursue other remedies.” State enforcement officer Peter Gowen said the evidence and likely duration of leakage allows a fine of $16,000. Encana cooperated, and regulators set the amount at $15,000, Gowen said. “The level of cooperation we get from an operator makes a really big difference,” he said. Brueske then asked for a formal adjudicatory hearing. That means state officials must consider his evidence, including witness testimony, relating to the wells. His broader claims about the state regulatory system would require different COGCC rulemaking or action by the state legislature. He bears the burden of proof.

“We’ve had a problem with some really sloppy operators that aren’t doing their jobs. It seems like there’s a pattern,” Commissioner DeAnn Craig, a petroleum engineer, told fellow commissioners. If enforcement isn’t strict, she said, “the public isn’t going to have any confidence in this commission.”

[Refer also to:  Designed to Fail: Why Regulatory Agencies Don’t Work ]

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