Well leak spews fluid; Is fracking to blame?
Authorities are still awaiting test results that could help determine the cause of a leak at a 32-year-old, nonproducing oil and gas well seven miles southwest of De Beque.
The Maralex Resources well is now producing about 100 barrels, or 4,200 gallons, of fluids a day into a containment pit, about a week and a half after the discovery of gas and fluids leaking from and around the well. Part of the leak investigation is focused on whether recent hydraulic fracturing of a nearby Black Hills Exploration & Production well could have caused the leak.
As of Tuesday, results weren’t back from water and soil tests that could confirm or rule out the presence at the leak site of frack fluids from the recent operation.
Todd Hartman, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said test results are expected the first week of January.
Black Hills drilled a well about a mile away that by design turned horizontally underground. The company believes it came within about 400 feet of the Maralex well, which is on Bureau of Land Management land. The Black Hills well is targeting the Niobrara shale formation, whereas the Maralex well was drilled deeper to reach the Dakota sandstone formation.
BLM spokesman Chris Joyner said it’s theoretically possible the two wells are as close as 260 feet. He said that in the spring, Black Hills ran measuring tools down the Maralex well, and it headed in a direction that would place the new well about 400 feet from it. But for some reason Black Hills didn’t measure the entire length of the Maralex well, so if it happened to make a 90-degree turn beneath the measured length, the wells could be as close as 260 feet, Joyner said. That’s unlikely for what is considered to be a vertical rather than horizontal well, and the 400-foot distance is probably correct, but the BLM has to consider worst-case scenarios, he said.
An unknown amount leaked from the well before it was discovered and Maralex began diverting it into the pit, from which fluids are being removed by trucks. The BLM says no surface water impacts have occurred. The nearest surface water is the Colorado River, which is anywhere from four to six miles away as measured by the winding canyons below the spill site.
Crews have built a berm and shored up the downhill side of the pad, and installed a trench to protect a nearby draw, particularly from any possible leaked fluids that may now be frozen but could flow when thawed. Soil samples also have been taken in the draw, and Joyner said it’s likely Maralex also will be ordered to install groundwater monitoring wells in the area.
Following the leak’s discovery, Maralex opened the well and installed a diversion pipe from it, and leaking around the well ceased. Flows from the well itself also have been intermittent. Joyner said some of the flows may simply consist of substances coming up from the well’s target production zone because it’s no longer shut in.
That shut-in occurred in 1981, the same year the well was drilled, but it remained capable of production, the BLM says. The well showed no structural problems during a BLM inspection this summer.
The BLM has ordered Maralex to permanently plug and abandon the well and reclaim the site. Joyner said plugging could occur as soon as the end of this week, but first the problem with the well must be identified and fixed.
“Right now we’re very actively engaged in trying to figure out what the problem is with the well,” he said.
“… It’s a very controlled situation now. We just don’t have the well killed, so to speak, and fixed.”
He said the BLM has been happy with the efforts by Maralex and the industry in general, including contractors and companies that have lent equipment. Quick early actions helped contain the leaking fluids, he said.
Black Hills also has been involved on the scene.
“It’s certainly not looked at as just a Maralex problem. It’s looked at as a problem that we need to fix as a group,” he said, referring to the industry, BLM and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
Hartman said the COGCC has had personnel on the scene daily. He said the agency has had discussions with Maralex about a remediation plan that will be carried out after the well is plugged.
Joyner said site access has been a challenge due to alternately frozen and muddy roads.
An employee for Ignacio-based Maralex who declined to give his name said Tuesday that the company was waiting on test results before it would speak to issues surrounding the leak.