This examiner attended the “Fracking and our water” event held at Mi Casa in Denver yesterday and sponsored by Be the Change USA. The event included a great deal of factual information on hydraulic fracturing used in the oil and gas industry, how it impacts drinking water, and what citizens can do to protect their natural resources.
Colorado community and citizen action groups, including Be the Change USA, successfully but only temporarily halted three of 15 proposed leases to oil and gas drilling in South Park last week. Two of these were on the shores of Antero Lake and another further north off the South Platte River. (See previous article.)
The keynote speaker at the event was Wes Wilson, an Environmental Protection Agency whistle blower, who brought to light the dangers of hydraulic fracturing fluids (called fracking) to the public found in our air and water in 2004.
Phil Doe, a board member of Be the Change USA, introduced Wilson and stated that Wilson’s background included years of experience as a geological engineer, water resource manager, worked for the EPA for many years, served in the Vietnam War, and during the Bush administration became a whistle blower due to the “misinformation” from the oil and gas industry. Wilson was also involved in the two documentaries on this subject called Split Estate and this year’s Oscar nominated film Gasland.
Wilson began, “The oil industry is going to impress upon us.” He stated that the industry has “exploded, literally.”
Wilson explained that the days of extracting for liquid crude oil straight down into the earth are fading and now the industry must dig deeper and horizontally to extract oil and natural gas (methane) from shale. He added that oil and gas trapped in an anticline has been almost “exhausted”. The industry must dig deeper and use more sophisticated methods to extract these fossil fuels.
According to Wilson, the process of hydraulic fracking includes the use of water, sand, and a “gel” made of “lots of chemicals.” Water and sand is pumped deep inside the earth through a well. The entire well is not lined with cement. The industry is only required to line the well with cement to 50 feet below an existing domestic well. The gas/oil well is in the shape of an L and drills horizontally usually under existing aquifers.
Since the water dissipates on decent, the extracted gas and oil needs to return with another liquid in the form of a chemical gel. These chemicals are considered proprietary information and cannot be disclosed to the public, even though they are considered “hazardous” by the industry. Once the fossil fuels are extracted, the remaining fluids are placed in a lined holding pond or pit to evaporate into the surrounding air. (See Split Estate and Gasland to learn how property owners are dealing with these toxic holding ponds out gassing.)
According to Wilson, he does not believe that El Paso Corporation will be extracting natural gas (thermagenic/fossilized methane gas) (Biogenic is newly formed methane gas created from decaying matter, not as concentrated energy source as thermagenic methane.) from South Park, because they will need to build a pipeline to Colorado Springs to transport this fuel. Even though there is the potential to extract up to a trillion cubic feet of natural gas equating to approximately $4 billion in value, he believes that the corporation is focused on extracting the oil found within the shale in the Niobrara Formation. (Weld County is also part of the Niobrara Formation.) He continued that El Paso’s plan is to drill 300 wells in the formation near Fairplay and Como.
Wilson added that the oil and gas industry has many accidents and on average there are 1,000 notices of contamination a month in Colorado. These include spills, leaks, and explosions. This could also have a negative impact on the wildlife found in the region. Part of the proposed drilling sites is located on the James Mark Jones State Wildlife Area near Como in an elk calving area and where the endangered mountain plover migrates.
In addition, according to Wilson, the risks of contamination are high; however it’s not just the contamination residents and water recipients need to worry about. The industry will be using approximately 30,000 acre feet of water from Fairplay to pump the fossil fuels from the 300 proposed wells.
Furthermore, Wilson continued that the oil and gas industries receive many more exemptions than other industries when it comes to using chemicals in the ground and air. In 2004, the EPA had to regulate fracking fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act based on Wilson’s findings. While the industry stated that the fluids were “hazardous”, they were not a threat to the public. Meanwhile, Haliburton created a loophole to stop the regulation of these fluids in 2004. However since then, the EPA is back to regulating the fluids.
While the act allowed fracking fluids to be used in 2004, it specifically stated that diesel could not be used in fracking. Diesel, like many fossil fuels, contains hazardous chemicals that can harm humans and the environment like formaldehyde and benzene. These chemicals are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Many in the industry continued to use diesel to extract fossil fuels and claimed they were unaware of the law that they could not use diesel in the fracking process.
Doe commented at the end of the afternoon that the Bureau of Land Management parcels leased last week to El Paso on 7,000 acres were auctioned off at $1.50 per acre in South Park. This is in huge contrast to the parcels leased in Weld County for $3,000 per acre. Doe stated that the $960 collected for the leases will not even cover the costs for the Environmental Impact Surveys. The additional cost will be removed from the taxpayers’ pockets.
Later in the afternoon, Gopa Ross, the oil and gas chair for the Sierra Club spoke on the topic. She added that the state will be compensated at a 6.2% severance tax (Wilson stated earlier it was 4%), much lower than surrounding states, and the BLM receives a 12% severance tax compensation. This is a percentage of the profits the oil and gas company collects on the resources it extracts. (The actual state severance percentage can range from 2-5% depending on how much profit is made according to Encyclorado.)
Ross argued that while politicians and the oil and gas industry proclaim that the industry creates many jobs for the areas in which they extract resources, they only produce 1% of all the jobs for the state. Furthermore, the industry receives a great deal of tax subsidies from the federal government, thereby earning much more than they give back to the public.
Larry and Doris LeDue live within a mile and a half of the recently drilled well in South Park and are extremely concerned. They spoke on the legislation panel with Ross. Larry added that he knows that the oil and gas industry will not bring more jobs to the region. He spoke with people from the industry and they stated that they have their own experts and riggers to travel to the sites. When the well is completed, the riggers move onto the next site. (Larry LeDue was featured in another of this examiner’s articles in 2009 on renewable energy.)
What can the public do the address this issue?
Wilson believes a new board, much like the transportation industry has (NTSA), should be created to better regulate the oil and gas industry. In addition, the Frac Act should be passed.
He added that the industry could actually use benign fluids, but instead use toxic chemicals hazardous to human and biological life forms. However he said, “They make a 30-40% return on investment, so they can afford to do so.”
Some Park County residents are very concerned about the uranium naturally found in the area and how it may impact their domestic water supply. Wilson admitted that uranium is very mobile in ground water and responded that, “It needs national expertise.” He added, “I’m afraid we won’t get it.” The drilling could actually allow uranium to move more freely within water supplies, than left undisturbed.
Wilson concluded that Colorado has the potential of being the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” and “Political leaders are eager to see more domestic production.”
Following Wilson’s presentation, a number of candidates for Denver mayor spoke on the topic and all present supported measures to stop hydraulic fracking processes that may negatively impact Denver’s water. Candidates in attendance were Paul Noel Fiorino, James Meija, Dough Linkhart, a representative speaking on behalf of Michael Hancock, Jeff Peckman (looking to get onto the ballot), and Eric Zinn.
Another South Park resident, Richard Hamilton, spoke in between panels and pleaded to the audience to protect our water from bad usage. He stated that we own the water rights in our state and have a right to protect our water.
Larry LeDue added during the legislation panel that the government needs to be there to protect the environment and the wildlife. “Once it is trashed, it is over.” He added that the laws need to be rewritten to protect the public.
Dick Barkey, the executive chair of Be the Change USA, added that the BLM is entrusted with our land. We need to put pressure on those who manage our land.
LeDue continued that Coloradans need to call and write letters to their legislators and act as if they were a swarm of bees.
Doris LeDue added that the oil and gas industry should be required to do a baseline test of ground water before they begin drilling, then there is proof when the industry contaminates the water. Right now the public loses, because they can’t prove what their water was like before the drilling. She continued later that the issue is more than an environmental issue, but a human rights issue. “We are losing them to industry. I think we’re losing them because not enough of us are involved in our democracy.” This followed with applause from the audience.
The panel discussions closed with comments from Phil Doe that the industry does not have the rights to our water and that the leases purchased last week from El Paso Corporation covering 7,000 acres amounted to a collection of $960 by the BLM. Is this enough to cover the negative environmental impacts including serverance tax compensation?
Be the Change USA concluded that Colorado and others impacted by expanding oil and gas exploration throughout the U.S. need to create a ground swell of opposition in order to protect our precious resources. They also encouraged the public to see Split Estate and Gasland and to stay involved.