Nebraska oil commission praised, panned at hearing

The Associated Press

Critics and supporters aired diverging views at a legislative hearing in Sidney about a state agency's approval of an oil production wastewater site.

SIDNEY, Neb. (AP) — Critics and supporters aired diverging views at a legislative hearing in Sidney about a state agency's approval of an oil production wastewater site.

State Sen. Ken Haar, of Malcolm, said Tuesday as the hearing got underway that he thought the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission "has dropped the ball" in approving the disposal site at an old well in southern Sioux County. He has said scrapping the commission and distributing its duties to other agencies might be the best course for the state.

Commission director Bill Sydow disagreed.

"Our permitting process is fairly vigorous," he said.

Jenny Hughson, who represented five generations on the Hughson ranch near the well, said the commission "has the responsibility to protect the environment, but it appears to be ignoring that responsibility."

Petroleum engineer Phil Kriz, of Evertson Cos. oil exploration, said the commission is recognized around the country as a staunch protector of groundwater.

"This system works," Kriz told the committee. "It doesn't need to be scrapped."

The Natural Resources Committee hearing was part of the Legislature's review of whether the state is doing enough to protect its groundwater or should consider reforms in the 2016 session. Questions were raised this spring after the commission approved a request from a Colorado energy company to discard oil and natural gas wastewater from Colorado, Wyoming and, ultimately, Nebraska, in the northwest Nebraska well. The project was opposed by some landowners and environmental groups that worried that leaks could contaminate the region's groundwater. The production water is considered waste because of its high salt content and industrial chemicals.

Jane Kleeb, of the environmental advocacy group Bold Nebraska, said Tuesday that it's a contradiction that the commission promotes the industry with one hand and regulates it with the other.

Mike Nickolaus, representing the Groundwater Protection Council, a nonprofit whose members consist of state groundwater regulatory agencies, said the commission's' underground injection control program meets or exceeds federal regulations.

"Investing authority in a body like the (commission), that understands oil fields and has staff to regulate it, is the best way to ensure the public is well-served," Nickolaus said.

The Natural Resources Committee is expected to hold another hearing in early December in Lincoln.

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