Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Benefits vs. risks: Debate over fracking not going away

NED B. HUNTER Updated: April 1, 2013 at 12:00 am 0

A wave of oil and gas exploration in El Paso County may be short-lived.

Ultra Resources has shelved plans for drilling in the area after its wells in eastern El Paso County produced disappointing results; Ultra is waiting to see what another company, Hilcorp Energy, uncovers.

But critics of drilling aren’t being complacent; they’ve called for a measure on the November ballot to allow a vote to ban oil and gas drilling within the city. Although proposed drilling regulations were rejected recently by the Colorado Springs City Council in a 4-to-4 tie vote, that doesn’t prevent oil and gas companies from drilling on agricultural-zoned property within the city under state permits.

The local debate mirrors ones at the state and national levels about the benefits and dangers of oil and gas drilling; those discussions have largely focused on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process, which is not new, forces a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into subsurface rock formations under high pressure, creating fissures from which petroleum products can be extracted.

Proponents of drilling point to the promise of energy independence and economic benefits. Critics say fracking poisons water supplies and causes air pollution.

But how real are those dangers?

“When properly conducted, modern fracking is a safe, sophisticated, highly engineered and controlled procedure,” the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission states on its website.

But the website also acknowledges risks exist, including the possible contamination of underground sources of drinking water; “adverse impacts” from discharges into surface waters or from disposal of fracked water in underground injection wells; and the threat of air pollution from “the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases.”

Many of the concerns center not on the drilling itself, but what happens after. In the past 25 years, just 33 accidents during drilling have been reported statewide , said Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Those problems occurred within the wellbore, the hole drilled to reach petroleum products, and almost always included problems with the cement casing that encases the wellbore and surrounds the drilling tool.

The casing is used to keep chemicals and other products from seeping into the environment, Lepore said; problems with the cement casings can lead to issues such as natural gas seeping into shallow groundwaters.

Spills are a more common problem related to oil and gas exploration. From Jan. 1, 2008, to March 8 of this year, there were 2,313 statewide spills or releases, most of which occurred after drilling, according to data on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s website. Out of more than 200 of those reports reviewed by The Gazette, all but five listed the cause as equipment failure or human error. “There is no doubt that most of the problems are spills and pilot errors,” said Wes Wilson, a former EPA official turned whistle-blower who travels around the state warning about the dangers of fracking.

State regulations define a spill as “any unauthorized sudden discharge of E&P (Exploration and Production) waste to the environment.” So the accidental disconnecting a hose from a valve, leaving a valve open or missing a container when attempting to fill it would be a spill.  

A release is caused by equipment failure. It can be a quick release, such as the December collapse of two above-ground holding containers at a drilling site in eastern El Paso County that released more than 3 million gallons of fresh water, or slow, such as seepage from a cracked underground pipe.

In February, about 84,000 gallons of water tainted with oil and chemicals used for fracking spewed from a wellhead near Windsor in northern Colorado; the cause was a mechanical failure.

A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that the actual injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids poses little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water.

The same cannot be said for spills and releases, though the extent of that threat is a source of debate.

Of the last 1,000 oil and gas-related spills or releases in the state, 43 percent were reported to have affected groundwater, according to a study by Shane Davis of the Sierra Club. Lepore disagreed with those results, saying the 43 percent was specific to Weld County and that only 17 percent of the last 1,000 statewide incidents affected groundwater.

No municipal or public drinking water sources that serve 50 or more people have been contaminated, Lepore said. Contamination has, however, occurred to some individual domestic wells as a result of oil and gas exploration, he said.

“I am not sure of dates, but those have been more than five years ago,” he said, “and they were a result of a problem with the actual wellbore itself.”

In Colorado, state regulations dictate a swift response to spills and releases. In addition, each company establishes an emergency response plan that is given to regulators, A. Kent Rogers, vice president of drilling and completions for Ultra Resources’ parent company Ultra Petroleum, said in an email.

“In the event of an actual emergency, the operator would notify all the regulators, while beginning action to handle the emergency,” he wrote. “Should the emergency warrant the creation of an Incident Command System, all of the affected regulators would be involved in its function and work directly with the operator towards response, plans, operations and final resolution.”

Examining air quality

Fracking can lead to the release of methane and other gases, Wilson said, leading some to question if the drilling method helps cause ozone problems and contributes to air pollution.

Both Wilson and Lepore cited an air quality study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the town of Erie that lies in Boulder and Weld counties. The study found “elevated levels of propane and other gas attributed to oil and gas (work).”

The problem with the study, Lepore said, is while NOAA was checking air quality, it was not looking for what specifically caused the air pollution.

“It did not attribute a source,” he said, “So we don’t know if it is from a tank, or facility, or a well pad” or another source.

Oil and gas drilling is a source of volatile organic chemical emissions, according to a study of contributors to air pollution in the Uintah Basin in eastern Utah. The study was released Feb. 20 by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and six other agencies, including the University of Colorado at Boulder. It found that oil and gas emissions account for 98 percent to 99 percent of VOC (volatile organic chemical) emissions in the Uintah Basin.”

Brock LeBaron, deputy division director for the Utah agency, said it was important to note that not all of the volatile chemicals emitted from oil and gas drilling contribute to ozone problems. He also said the majority of VOC emissions come not from the process of fracking but rather from leaky tanks used to store fluids and gases and other faulty or vented equipment.

“So the way you get emission is how you deal with the flowback of fluids,” he said. “Is it put in an enclosed tank or an open pond? It could be very controllable.”

Lepore said the federal government has passed drilling regulations designed to eliminate at least 95 percent of all harmful gases associated with drilling. The rules take effect through 2015. He said state lawmakers have imposed some of those federal standards now, and will apply all of the federal rules in Colorado before 2015.

Dave Gardner, spokesman for the Colorado Springs Citizens for Community Rights, an anti-fracking group, does not believe regulating the industry will keep it from contributing to air pollution.

“Even if we got regulations that said no air emissions from any (oil and gas equipment or storage facility),” he said, “we would still end up with a whole lot of diesel traffic and fumes that will add to the smog.”

Wilson has said elevated air pollution levels may not come from fracking chemicals, but rather from cleaning solutions, solvents and other chemicals used around well sites.

Industry key to Greeley

Oil and gas development is a key industry in Greeley in northern Colorado. The city receives more than $3 million annually from royalties, property and other taxes paid by the oil and gas industry.

There were 50,265 active oil and gas wells within the state at the end of last year, Lepore said; Greeley and surrounding Weld County had more than 19,000 of those. There have been roughly 100 spills or releases in that county since June 28, according to the state’s oil and gas website. Thirty percent of those contaminated groundwater; none contaminated surface waters. The state classifies surface waters as creeks, streams, rivers, ponds (including stock ponds), irrigation ditches and the like, Lepore said. Groundwater is any water source below the earth’s surface.

Greeley Mayor Tom Norton said none of the incidents has caused major contamination or significant damage within the county.

“We can say there is a 20-year period here where we have gone without any major problems,” Norton said.

Cities can enact a number of controls to help ensure public safety, he said.

“One thing is to require the construction of a berm (around water storage areas) to help contain possible spills,” he said.

Norton, however, opposed new setback rules approved last month by oil and gas regulators, warning of the impact on development. The new rules, which go into effect Aug. 1, require new oil and gas wells to be drilled at least 500 feet from homes and most buildings; that replaces a previous 350-foot rule for urban areas and a minimum 150-feet setback for rural areas.

Earlier in the year, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved rules requiring energy companies to conduct groundwater sampling before and after they drill.

Companies that want to drill in El Paso County must provide baseline water testing results before being issued drilling permits, said Craig Dossey, project manager for El Paso County. Companies also must supply emergency response plans. Transportation studies that show the impact of vehicles traveling to well sites are also performed before permits are issued, he said.

Both active and inactive petroleum wells in the state are under the supervision of 16 full-time inspectors and 20 others who conduct inspections as part of their responsibilities, said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. The inspectors work for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is under Natural Resources. Hartman said his department has asked the Legislature to approve funding for additional inspectors.

Not all wells need to be inspected on a regular basis, said Margaret Ash, manager of the Field Inspection Department for the Department of Natural Resources. Capped wells, for instance, do not need the same amount of oversight, she said.

“You have operators on the sites as often as every day that are our eyes and ears,” she said, “and you have landowners that are extremely vigilant about their property.”

Contact Ned Hunter: 636-0275.

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