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That's what she said

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No Explosions at Fracking Forum


photo and graphic courtesy Mike Chiropolos

At a PLAN-Boulder County forum on the evening of November 19, a panel discussion of hydraulic fracturing of oil shale to produce natural gas (and sometimes oil), commonly known as “fracking,” generated some light, some heat, and, fortunately, no explosions. The panel members were Mike Chiropolos, chief counsel, lands program, Western Resources Advocates; Sarah Landry, community outreach director, Colorado Oil and Gas Association; David Neslin, partner at the law firm of Davis, Graham & Stubbs, and former director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission; and Sam Schabacker, mountain west region director, Food and Water Watch. A crowd packed the back room at Shine for the forum.

The panelists concurred that “modern fracking” started in 1998. Chiropolos explained that fracking in Colorado had begun in the Sand Wash and Piceance basins in the northwest of the state, then spread to the San Juan basin in the southwest corner, and is now commonly used along the northern Front Range to exploit the Niobrara shale deposit. There are about 45,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado, the panelists agreed. According to Landry, 90 percent of the new ones are fracked. Chiropolos claimed that wells can now be drilled 9,000 feet horizontally and that up to 52 bores can be drilled from one pad.

Many sub-issues were debated by the panel. The positions of the panel members on these matters were roughly as follows:

Groundwater contamination: Landry asserted that groundwater cannot be contaminated by fracking because aquifers lie 1,000 feet underground and shale is fractured at the 7,000 foot level or below that. The distance between the fracking activity and the water is too great to allow contamination. Neslin declared that there are 270,00 permitted water wells in Colorado and contended that no confirmed case of groundwater being contaminated by fracking has occurred in this state, nor anywhere else in the  United States. He claimed that instances in which water wells have been reported as contaminated by methane happened because the wells were drilled into coal formations which contained methane. Chiropolos and Schabacker argued that groundwater could be contaminated by surface spills of water used in fracking and perhaps petroleum from wells. Schabacker also asserted that in many instances fracking wells are shallower than 7,000 feet deep. (A member of the audience, Alison Burchell, maintained that subterranean cracks between the zone where fracking occurs and the aquifers could easily lead to groundwater contamination.)

Water use: The panelists all agreed that two to five million gallons of water is used for each oil shale fracture that is created. Landry contended that the fracking business uses only .08 percent of all the water in Colorado. Neslin pointed out that water for fracking has to be obtained through the same water rights system that governs all other water uses in the state, and that the other uses, such as agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses, consume vastly more water than fracking does. Neslin and Landry also observed that water that has been used for fracking is increasingly being re-cycled and used for further fracking operations and other purposes. Schabacker countered that a considerable amount of fracking water is lost forever and that fracking wells are projected to triple in number in the next decade, thereby tripling the industry’s use of water. He also noted that climate change is expected to reduce the state’s water supply.

Toxins in the fracking fluids: Schabacker asserted that 40 to 50 of the chemicals used in fracking fluids can damage the immune and nervous system of humans and that they, together with methane released by the fracking wells, degrade the health of people within a half mile of the wells. He complained that the formulas used by the drilling companies are kept secret, so that when doctors and other health professionals have to treat people affected by spills of fracking fluids, they do not know what dangerous chemicals they are dealing with. Landry responded that 95 percent of fracking fluids consist of sand and water, that the chemicals used in these fluids are publicly listed, and that the exact formulas are disclosed to health care professionals on a confidential basis when they need to know them. Landry also asserted that these formulas are critical trade secrets, sort of like the formulas for Coke and Pepsi, and that their public disclosure would ruin the companies that have developed them. Landry further maintained that 93 percent of current fracked wells utilize a “closed loop” system, so that all of the fracking fluids are recovered.

“Fugitive methane” contamination of the atmosphere: Schabacker cited a study by a researcher at the University of Denver which found that people living within half a mile of a well experience five times more health hazards than residents further away. But Neslin disputed the validity of that study, claiming that its methodology is probably flawed. Schabacker also referred to another study which concluded that residents within a half mile of a well suffered from a significantly higher risk of cancer than those who lived four or more miles away. Neslin asserted that “fugitive methane” almost always arises from poor cement work and/or defective metal casing around the wellbore and that the industry has drastically reduced the incidence of those failures. He also declared that most methane escapes from wells after fracking has finished but before production has commenced. He contended that there are feasible ways to contain the methane.  Chiropolos called for stricter wellbore integrity standards and more testing. Schabacker pointed out that the State of Colorado employs only 17 well inspectors for 45,000 wells.

Spills:  Chiropolos observed that spills and other accidents are inevitable from drilling. Schabacker charged that more than one spill a day occurs at wells in Colorado. Landry responded that such spills are not isolated to fracked wells, but occur at traditional wells, too, that the spills are quickly cleaned up, and that the harm to humans and the environment has been minimal.

Other detriments: Schabacker contended that 75 percent of the value of a residential property is lost if it is located near to a well, and that often such homes cannot be sold. Noise, dust, and traffic from trucks and heavy equipment were also mentioned as detriments of fracking.

Setbacks: The current setback for wells required by Colorado law is 350 feet from dwelling units. However, Schabacker asserted that 4,000 exemptions had been granted that allowed wells to be closer than 350 feet. Chiropolos called for wells to be 1,000 feet from residences and 1,500 feet from schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and other sensitive facilities. Chiropolos claimed that drilling operators could easily comply with expanded setbacks, since their horizontal drilling capacity is about 9,000 feet. Landry pointed out drillers have to obtain the mineral rights for the entire area under which they drill and that such rights can be difficult or impossible to acquire. Chiropolos responded that the state could eliminate that obstacle by authorizing “pooling” arrangements and other legal solutions.

Liquified natural gas: target Asia

Benefits: Landry asserted that there are 100,000 fracking jobs in Colorado. Neslin observed that natural gas heats three out of four homes in the United States and that it is used to generate 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, a percentage that is climbing. He called natural gas a critical “bridge” fuel to a new era dominated by renewable energy. Schabacker asserted that the petroleum industry plans to export 40 percent of natural gas produced in this nation in liquid form and questioned why American citizens should have to suffer the detriments of fracking when the gas will be used abroad.  Landry declared that the United States has reached a 20 year low in greenhouse gas emissions, largely because of the increased use of natural gas caused by its soaring supply and plummeting price. In contrast, Schabaker asserted that natural gas consumption is “arguably worse than burning coal.” Both sides referred to conflicting studies—two of which were conducted by researchers at Cornell University—that greater natural gas use has either decreased or not decreased greenhouse gas emissions in this country.

The future: Schabacker, who was one of the principal instigators of Longmont’s prohibition of fracking, declared that it is too dangerous to be regulated and must be banned entirely. Chiropolos asked for more regulation to minimize toxic chemicals in the fracking fluids, increase setbacks, monitor air quality more closely, require field-wide planning, including phased leasing and clustered development, and for more agency staffing and resources to monitor and inspect drilling operations. Chiropolos said he was encouraged that at a Colorado Oil and Gas Association conference on August 15, 2012, Governor Hickenlooper had expressed interest in new regulations concerning setbacks, fugitive methane emissions, wellbore integrity standards and testing, and baseline water testing and monitoring. Neslin claimed that under his direction the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission had adopted state-of-the art regulations five years ago. However, he did not seem opposed to some additional regulation. Several panelists pointed out that the Oil and Gas Commission is currently engaged in a “rule-making process” which may generate new regulations. However, Schabacker disparaged the Commission’s rule-making efforts, claiming that his suggestions and those of other industry critics were routinely ignored.

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