Hydraulic fracturing has become a contentious issue– no one is arguing with that. As of election day, a mere two weeks ago, three Colorado cities approved bans or moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing– Boulder, Fort Collins and Lafayette– while Longmont had already established a ban and is being sued by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. And don’t forget about Broomfield, where the debate hasn’t yet ended. From the High Country News Goat Blog:
…It’s the closeness of the vote on a Broomfield ballot measure to ban the practice for five years. When results came in after the Nov. 5 election, it had lost by a mere 13 votes, triggering a mandatory recount. Last Thursday, though, after counters had tallied overseas, military and other outstanding votes, the measure had squeaked ahead by a nose – a mere 17 votes out of 20,683, triggering yet another mandatory recount.
The article says many are pointing to the Broomfield election as a better reflection of public opinion than the other cities where ballot measures passed. Still, with all these bans, recent news articles call Colorado a ‘national battleground for domestic energy issues’– and we’re making the national news. From the New York Times:
More than 100 municipalities have approved similar measures, according to a nonprofit industry monitor, FracTracker, and political opposition to fracking has grown in some areas, like Pennsylvania, where drilling has boomed. But experts say the Colorado votes have added significance because the state has long been a major oil and gas producer and a place where drilling has been both common and tolerated.
What is fracking? From the new Energy Issue of Headwaters magazine:
Hydraulic fracturing was first used in Colorado in 1948. The application of water, sand and chemicals at high pressures to stimulate production is called by the industry and regulators a “frac.” To journalists, that spelling looks unkempt, so the news outlets call it a “frack.” To opponents, it’s a four-letter word no matter how you spell it. What’s different between those original fracks and those currently done an average of five times every day in Colorado is like the chasm between the first Apple computers and MacBooks today: the new versions are immensely more powerful—and more precise. Instead of pumping fluids by the thousands of gallons, as the first fracturing jobs did, today companies commonly use more than 5 million gallons of water to “shoot” deep rock layers and fracture them. Tiny fissures smaller than a follicle of hair are formed and propped open by sand particles and other “proppants,” allowing the oil and gas to escape out of the rock and into well casings. Fracturing chemicals, which constitute less than 1 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid’s total volume, are used to improve effectiveness. Many are ordinary, benign household or industrial substances, but some are known carcinogens and other toxins, raising concern about potential impacts to water quality.
Concerns, of course, relate to human health, water and air quality, noise, dust and quality of life. Perhaps all of those concerns were elevated just in time for election day by Colorado’s September flooding, notes the Times article. So what does it mean to be a national battleground? From the Times:
Whether approved or defeated, he said, the increasing efforts by voters and municipalities to ban or regulate hydraulic fracturing are “putting it on the radar to politicians that at the local level there are some problems.”
Marty Durbin, the president of America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a Washington-based industry group, said the Colorado votes presented a challenge to the industry to better educate the public about the economic benefits and technological advances of fracking.
“What Colorado tells us is that, yes, there are going to be pockets where the industry and elected officials in areas have to do more to raise the public’s comfort level,” Mr. Durbin said in an interview. But nationally, he said, “The trend has been nothing but positive.”
While these lawsuits will help determine whether towns and counties can say no to drilling, in some ways their outcome doesn’t matter. That’s because these communities are already helping change a regulatory landscape that has long favored industry, particularly in Western states, simply by pushing against the status quo and elevating the issue to the national stage.
Water Quality at Risk?
Over the years, concerns have grown that drilling could contaminate local water supplies. The proximity of the Wattenberg Field to residential areas has served to amplify citizen outcry. Many allege that Colorado laws governing drilling are too lax, that the protection of vital water supplies is disregarded in the frenzy to tap the resource. The focus of the attention has been on fracking.
It’s true there have been spills and other evidence of mistakes, all of them cause for concern. But with 51,000 active wells in Colorado, most of them fracked, the chemicals used in the
process have never been shown to migrate underground to drinking water supplies as many have feared. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen. It’s just unlikely.
Aquifers tapped for drinking water are typically found within 1,000 feet of the surface. Oil and gas drillers plunge concentric circles of steel pipe through these shallower layers of
rock containing potable water, encase the pipes in layers of concrete, then drill much, much deeper through impermeable layers of what are called cap rocks. These impermeable layers are what have kept the oil and gas underground over eons. In the layers 3,000 to 10,000 feet below ground are the hydrocarbons—and also more water. This deeper water is usually salty, leftover from ancient oceans and seas, and high in dissolved minerals, making it unfit for human consumption.
Limiting the discussion to what is happening underground, potable groundwater supplies can theoretically be harmed by drilling and hydraulically fracturing a well in just two ways: 1) if the steel casing or concrete lining the well bore fails, or 2) if the fractures themselves create pathways extending thousands of feet upward. As regards the latter possibility, energy companies have a vested economic interest in measuring and controlling the length of fractures, in order to reduce the quantity of frack fluids required and protect their ability
to drill additional, nearby wells without risking uncontrolled interactions. Microseismic technology enables them to “read” the measurements underground, and the COGCC reports fractures remaining in the “formation of interest” and rarely extending beyond several hundred feet. Even those fractures that reach 1,500 feet typically extend more horizontally than vertically, and remain thousands of feet below groundwater sources.
Although standards are in place to monitor the integrity of well casings, which must extend below potable groundwater supplies, the technique isn’t perfect. Of the 38,000
wells drilled in Colorado since 1990, there have been 15 cases—and possibly a 16th yet unresolved case—where well-bore failures led to groundwater contamination by methane,
the primary component in natural gas. Most of these failures occurred prior to 2008, when state rules were changed to require steel casing and concrete extend 50 feet below the
deepest aquifer being used for drinking water.
In 2004, for example, a well-bore failure occurred near Silt, west of Glenwood Springs, resulting in methane bubbling from West Divide Creek. The operator, Encana, was fined
$371,000. That same investigation in 2004, however, cleared oil and gas activities in the case of methane detected in a private water well along West Divide Creek. The methane there, said state inspectors, came from naturally occurring, near-surface, “biogenic” sources—as opposed to the deep “thermogenic” methane targeted by energy companies. Isotopic testing allows chemists to make the distinction. Although considered harmless if swallowed in water, methane quickly outgases, releasing into the air where it can become explosive.
While methane contamination has occurred, no evidence exists to show fracking chemicals migrating to reach groundwater used for drinking. Not just in Colorado, but nationwide, in
fact, there has yet to be any conclusive proof of such contamination occurring. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report saying groundwater at Pavillion, Wyoming, was fouled by 13 different chemicals used in fracking fluids, chemicals the agency concluded were introduced during the injection stage of hydraulic fracturing. The agency’s conclusions about how the chemicals came to be in the water samples taken, however, are hotly disputed. The EPA has since stepped aside to let Wyoming state officials further investigate. Some see the move as a sign the EPA recognizes its science was critically flawed, though the EPA continues to stand by its data. The state-led study will be funded, in part, by a $1.5 million grant from the oil field’s operator, Encana.
What worries some is not what we know. Rather, it’s what we don’t know. A major sticking point has been the lack of transparency about content and quantities of fracturing fluids. How can regulatory agencies monitor for chemical compounds they don’t know to be looking for?
The Energy Policy Act passed by Congress in 2005 excluded fracking from disclosures required by the Safe Drinking Water Act—under which the EPA regulates the injection of fluids
underground. In halting steps, states have instituted their own requirements. The nonprofit Groundwater Protection Council in 2011 set up a national Web-based system for voluntary disclosure called FracFocus.
In Colorado, the public disclosure of ingredients used in fracturing fluid was first required upon demand of public officials and healthcare providers. In 2012, Colorado made disclosure
via FracFocus a mandatory requirement. All chemicals used since then must be disclosed as a percentage of the total mass of the fluid, but companies remain exempt from reporting
their proprietary “recipes.” At the time it passed, Colorado’s disclosure rule was the strictest in the nation, says Lepore. “The Environmental Defense Fund and industry came
together and supported the rule. It was a big moment, a rare moment,” he says. Since then, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Tennessee have mod-eled their disclosure rules after those here.
Mark Williams, of the University of Colorado, believes the industry hurt its own cause by being secretive, which allowed worst-case fears to flourish. He sees little risk from fracking, but says the public worries are easily understood. “The potential of contamination by fracking fluids is really, really low—but not zero,” says Williams, a hydrologist who is co-leading a $12 million program funded by the National Science Foundation to explore fracking and other issues involving oil and gas extraction.
But how do we know the risk is low? Some argue that we don’t—unless we have baseline data that records water quality before drilling occurs and then again afterward. Although such data exists for certain regions—in the San Juan Basin, for example, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association reports more than 2,000 samples have been recorded since 2000 with no evidence of impacts to groundwater wells adjacent to drilling activities— it isn’t a complete picture. Colorado began requiring monitoring statewide in May 2013.
“It’s absolutely essential. We need to know what the conditions are in terms of water quality, before oil and gas is extracted, to know if there is a perturbation, or a problem, of contamination,” says Williams. What must be understood, he adds, is that the potential for contamination varies widely as a function of the hydrogeology. “Just because there has been some contamination of a rock formation elsewhere in the United States doesn’t mean that you have an increased likelihood of contamination where you are. It depends
upon the hydrogeology of your area.”
To help resolve the uncertainties, Congress in 2010 ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to undertake a major transparent, peer-reviewed study of the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The draft study is scheduled for public review in 2014.
Want to know more about the energy-water nexus in Colorado? Check out the latest issue of Headwaters magazine here, browse photos and presentations from our water-energy tour … and share your thoughts on hydraulic fracturing below.
- Heartland Institute Report: Hydraulic Fracturing a Game-Changer for… (prweb.com)
- Word games are misleading the American public about fracking (grist.org)
- Alaska mulls hydraulic fracturing rules (upi.com)
- The Right Way to Frack (blogs.wsj.com)
- New Air Quality Rules For Colorado Gas Industry May Bring Stricter Methane Emissions Standards (huffingtonpost.com)
- Three of four Colorado communities vote to ban, suspend fracking (reuters.com)
- Huge Election Victories for Colorado’s Anti-Fracking Movement (ecowatch.com)