We voted differently on water pollution and that’s OK

A coupled production and injection well on a Anadarko Petroleum Corporation site. (Courtesy of Colorado School of Mines — click to view)
by Ryan Lance and Tom Drean, Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioners
— April 30, 2013

The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission recently granted its approval for an oil and gas company to inject produced water into a part of the Madison formation that, by all accounts, contains relatively clean water. The Commission’s approval was based on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved rule, which says that produced water can be injected into an otherwise clean water formation if that clean water “is situated at a depth or location which makes recovery of fresh and potable water economically or technologically impractical.”

The Commission heard extensive testimony ranging from the cost to drill a water well to a depth of 15,000 feet to the modeling that showed how the injected water might spread from the point of injection. The Commission collected comments from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), pursuant to its rules. The Commission also recently received comments from the EPA, again, consistent with its rules.

Contrary to some reports, the DEQ , an agency with scientific expertise, ultimately determined that it did not object to the application submitted by the company to inject water into the Madison formation. And now, with the Commission having received comments from the EPA, Commission staff has been directed to review those comments and determine if they have concerns that would merit further review by the Commission or the submission of additional information, potentially including modeling by the company.

But to the crux of them after that has received a fair bit of attention in the public and press: we voted differently. We were both provided with the same information and we came to a different conclusion and we think that is perfectly reasonable and acceptable. There was no sense of hostility or anger or even disappointment among the Commission after the vote was taken. There is none today as we can each see very good reason for the other Commissioners’ votes and respect those votes and the reasoning behind them. Even so, the looming question of whether a “non-scientist” on the Commission could reasonably have disagreed with a scientist persists.

Despite the perception that the science surrounding this matter was cut and dried, we believe that the decision was not a slam dunk either way. Thoughtful people – geologists, engineers, DEQ scientists and staff, lawyers, teachers, electricians or anyone else – could reasonably conclude that the Commission should move forward with the permit but also could reasonably conclude that it should not. In our view, the Legislature deliberately and wisely set up the membership of the Commission to include a variety of expertise and experiences. Such diversity is aimed at ensuring that issues are looked at from all sides – with the expertise of the Commission staff to provide a backdrop of technical support before, during and after the Commission issues a decision.

Because so much is at stake when the Commission exercises its judgment, we do not simply make the decision and walk away. We continue to collect data and factor it into our evaluations and deliberations. We task staff with the review of technical information submitted by the company to ensure that we are able to monitor the effects our decision has on the health and safety of the public and the environment. Further, we retain the full and unquestioned ability to call the company back before the Commission to answer questions and present additional data. Should new and additional information and data indicate a need to reconsider and perhaps alter our decision, we will do so.

In the coming weeks, Commission staff will continue to evaluate the Commission’s decision – particularly as we work to address the comments submitted by the EPA. If, during that review, staff deems that new information needs to be requested or additional modeling needs to be done, we will support them and their diligence and do what it takes to safeguard the state and its people.

Despite our different votes, we agree that we have to get it right and we are committed to doing so.

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  1. It speaks well of the commission and these two authors, Ryan Lance & Tom Drean, that they have described the thoughtful and serious approach to decision-making that occurs within the present commission (it was not always that way). However, I do hope that, in the end, they employ the only test that is really logical when making decisions involving potential pollution : If there’s a question regarding irreparable harm, don’t do it. “First, do no harm,” should always outrank “fair and balanced.”