Despite advances, concerns about drilling’s impacts remain
As proud as WPX Energy is of its role in helping get 10,000 wells producing natural gas in Garfield County, it’s prouder yet of its work to reduce associated surface disturbance, local district manager Steve Soychak says.
Both WPX and the region’s other largest natural gas producer, Encana USA, can point to a long list of operational advances they say have benefited area residents, wildlife and the environment.
“We realize we’re going to have impacts. That’s the nature of the business we’re in,” said Encana spokesman Doug Hock. “But we try to minimize those as much as possible.”
Still, in the view of some local critics, companies’ efforts still fall well short of what’s needed to adequately protect people living in drilling country. And the kind of debate that has accompanied local natural gas development for years has expanded to many other parts of the state and nation as drilling has spread to new areas, thanks in part to the same hydraulic fracturing that has made it economical locally.
Vince Matthews, who recently retired as the Colorado state geologist, sees the opposition as being more fervent in places other than the Piceance, which he said could be one factor working in the Piceance’s favor as companies decide where to drill.
“There’s tremendous opposition right now on the Front Range regarding drilling of oil and gas,” he said.
He noted the calls there for banning fracking — as in a recent measure approved by Longmont voters and being challenged by the industry in court. A ban on fracking is essentially a ban on drilling because there essentially are no more conventional, non-fracked wells to be drilled, he said.
But while voters never have considered fracking bans in the Piceance Basin, concerns about gas development here have persisted since its early days.
Matt Sura began working with the Western Colorado Congress citizens group in 1996, helped start the affiliated Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Garfield County in 1998 and is now an attorney who does work for both groups. He said it’s true that companies like WPX and Encana have come a long way in their efforts to reduce impacts.
But he said that unfortunately, “they learned on the backs of residents of Garfield County” who endured many impacts when drilling boomed and a lot of mitigations had yet to be put in place.
“I think the rest of the state has benefited from some of what the industry has learned,” he said.
Even today, some county residents complain of health-related, traffic and other impacts, and their complaints are gaining a new audience among those who live in places still new to drilling.
They also took their concerns to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission during its recent hearings, leading to its decision to adopt new setback rules aimed at better buffering occupied buildings from drilling operations.
One of them, Karen Trulove, talked of suffering burning eyes, respiratory symptoms and other maladies she believes resulted from air pollutants related to drilling south of Silt. She managed to sell her house and leave the area for Glenwood Springs just before the real estate market crashed.
“I feel for the people that are not able to move,” she told the commission.
Soychak and Hock referred to a number of innovations by their companies over the years to reduce the disturbances that come with drilling. They’ve mastered the use of directional drilling to limit the number of well pads, with Encana in one case drilling 52 wells from a single pad. They’ve incorporated green completions to avoid having to vent or flare gas as wells are put into production. They recycle water in multiple fracking jobs and also use pipelines to deliver it to well sites, reducing truck traffic.
Hock said Encana also makes use of combusters on tanks and vapor recovery units to reduce emissions, and it pipes condensate and other fluids from some pads to avoid the need for tanks on the pads, reducing truck traffic and the possibility of tank spills.
Soychak said WPX — at the time Williams, which later spun off its oil and gas production business — pioneered many such measures, some of which it also now uses elsewhere in the country. Many standards now being adopted as requirements by the state and Bureau of Land Management are ones Williams had already set for itself, he said.
WPX spokeswoman Susan Alvillar said Williams began doing water quality sampling locally in 2006. The commission this month adopted a requirement for pre- and post-sampling near drilling locations.
New setback requirements the agency preliminarily adopted encourage meetings with landowners, something WPX long has done, Soychak said.
Hock said that over the years Encana has put a greater emphasis on working with communities and paying attention to what it calls its “social license” to drill.
Both Sura and Randy Udall, a Carbondale energy analyst, called for minimum setbacks larger than what the commission has preliminarily approved (500 feet, with the ability to drill even closer under certain circumstances).
In seeking stronger rules in such matters, they cite the fact that measures that companies once resisted, such as drilling directionally to reduce the number of pads, actually ended up making economic sense for them.
“That’s one of the unanticipated consequences of tighter regulations,” Udall said. “As they’ve become more environmentally responsive, some of the things that they were required to do actually ended up saving them money when they got good at it.”
Energy companies generally have said they prefer voluntary steps over mandatory requirements because of the need for operational flexibility when necessary.
Maintaining the industry’s viability has been important to Garfield County, where in 2012 oil and gas production and facilities had an assessed valuation of $2.87 billion, 73 percent of the total valuation in the county. Revenue from the industry has helped the county government become debt-free, with money equivalent to a year’s budget in the bank, Commissioner John Martin said. The industry has both negative and positive effects, but he thinks it’s generally doing well environmentally, noting that its air pollution never reaches violation levels.
Sura said that would be different if the county had much in the way of traffic and factories to add to oil and gas pollution. He believes people living near drilling operations suffer effects, and that air quality will be the next big area of regulation. Already, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is planning a process for how to implement new Environmental Protection Agency air quality standards for oil and gas development, he said.
“That’s going to benefit Garfield County. It’s going to benefit the entire state,” he said.