WASHINGTON — The nation’s first large energy bill in more than a decade will make it easier for oil and gas companies to get permits to drill in Colorado and to exempt themselves from clean water laws.
Negotiators from the House and Senate ended a conference late Monday night to resolve their differences over the 1,000-page bill. The House version focused on incentives for companies to produce traditional fossil fuels — oil, gas and coal — while the Senate version emphasized renewable energy.
The result is a mix of both.
For the Western Slope — home to one of the country’s last promising natural gas deposits — the current form of the bill means that gas companies will face quicker, easier environmental reviews of their drilling sites.
The energy bill helps drillers skirt two clean water rules.
First, it exempts projects that use hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Drillers use the method to shoot water or diesel fuel into the ground around a coalbed methane deposit. The high pressure breaks up the rock formations and frees more of the gas.
But critics, such as the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, say the leftover fluids pose a threat to drinking water.
“We have 30,000 oil and gas wells on the horizon in the West. We don’t need more environmental rollbacks,” said Gwen Lachelt, executive director of the Durango-based OGAP.
The bill also removes construction at oil and gas drilling sites from review
under the Federal Water Pollution
Congressional leaders hope to pass the final bill and send it to President Bush this week.
Sen. Ken Salazar, Colorado’s representative on the Senate Energy Committee, said the bill includes some wins and some losses.
He had hoped the conference committee would use the Senate language maintaining water pollution laws. The state of Colorado also regulates water quality, and Salazar said he believes Congress should not pass a bill that takes away the state’s right to enforce water laws.
Salazar is most disappointed that a mandate that the United States get 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 — similar to a law passed by Colorado voters last November — was deleted from the final version of the bill.
He said House negotiators deleted the renewable standard “because they were in line with the position of the White House.”
The bill seeks to speed up the permit process for prospective companies that want to sink a well on public land — a priority for the Bush administration.
In its current form, the energy bill gives the Bureau of Land Management 10 days to complete a review of a company’s application to drill. After 10 days, the BLM must either approve the permit or tell the company how it can fix its application.
Although Boulder and Weld counties have oil and gas deposits, the permit provision mostly affects the Western Slope, where the BLM controls much of the land.
The BLM reviews the permits to make sure they comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. Lachelt sympathized with BLM workers who have to handle a crush of the complicated reviews and will have to work faster under the proposed bill.
“They’ve been under so much pressure to rubber-stamp applications to drill,” she said. “We’ve felt for many years there hasn’t been enough time to review.”
The bill authorizes $45 million for the BLM to speed up the permit process, and $20 million to improve environmental inspections and enforcement at well sites.
Salazar also said he was troubled by aspects of the measure dealing with commercial leasing for oil shale in Colorado.
He wanted to go slow on oil shale, starting with a research program to see if development would be clean and affordable. Colorado suffered a historic oil shale bust in 1982.
“I am disappointed in what came out of the conference committee in terms of oil shale,” Salazar said. “They created the potential for an oil shale boom, when in fact we have a lot to learn.”
Still, the bill includes a Salazar-backed call to roughly double the amount of ethanol used in gasoline, to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012. Farm-state legislators like that requirement because the fuel is made from corn and other crops.
The coal mining section also may hold significance for Colorado. The bill will quadruple the allowable size of a coal-mining lease to one square mile, from the current 160 acres.
The bigger leases are needed to take advantage of modern mining techniques that can reach coal deeper in a seam that might go unmined under the current 160-acre leases, according to Salazar’s office.