November 4, 2011

Spread thin: Oil, gas inspectors

New stores of natural gas and oil deposits are out there waiting to be extracted in a process called hydraulic fracturing, but there’s only a tiny contingent of state inspectors to make sure it’s done safely.

That’s raising some red flags among environmentalists and others who worry that the state’s oil-and-gas monitoring efforts are no match for rapidly expanding drilling operations across Colorado.

And with more than 47,000 active wells and only 15 full-time inspectors, the numbers don’t favor a vigilant inspection program.

Hydraulic fracturing – sometimes called fracking for short – involves injecting thousands of gallons of chemical-laden water into rock layer fissures to release trapped oil and gas deposits that are then pumped to the surface with the injected fluids.

Horizontal drilling and fracking has brought new life to old fields and new areas into play, but the act of injecting these fluids into the ground – and their proper disposal – is worrisome to those who fear groundwater drinking supplies may be at risk.

And while the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission says it’s keeping a close watch on fracking, some say the commission isn’t doing enough.

“The Sierra Club does find (fracking is having) a serious impact,´ said Shane Davis, executive chair of the club’s Poudre Canyon Chapter.

Davis said he’s reviewed spill and violation reports on the commission’s Website – http://cogcc.state.co.us – and is convinced the state’s groundwater is in danger.

“Everybody needs to know the groundwater is being contaminated and will continue to be contaminated,” he said.

COGCC’s website includes a monthly report on the numbers of reported spills and cited violations. And with specific location information in hand, a search can be done to find a specific spill report and see how the incident was handled.

Reports and complaints
Most spills are investigated on a company report or citizen complaint basis.
With more than 47,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, COGCC inspectors can’t be at every well site to watch over the industry.

David Neslin, COGCC director, said he believes his agency – which falls under the state Department of Natural Resources – is adequately regulating the drillers.
“We do believe we’re able to efficiently regulate the industry and through our inspection program promote compliance,” he said. “We believe hydraulic fracturing is responsibly regulated by the state.”

Neslin acknowledges his agency is stretched thin when it comes to performing ongoing onsite inspections.

“Like most state managers, we all wish we had more staff but we understand these are tight budget times,” he said.

But Neslin said the inspector numbers are deceiving because he has another 14 environmental staff members and another 10 engineers who are called upon to help with inspections on an incident-specific basis.

Still, even with 39 people potentially available to inspect the state’s 47,000 wells, that comes to more than 1,100 wells per inspector annually.

For the 15 full-time inspectors, that’s more than 3,000 wells each.

“That number of inspectors is not nearly enough to watch over those wells,´ said Sierra Club’s Davis. “I fear the state is not living up to the standards they’re supposed to uphold.”

Neslin said he believes the state is doing its job effectively. “Once the well is drilled and inspected, the frequency of inspection decreases,” he said. “We’ve reorganized our inspection group over the last two years to have a much more coordinated inspection process.”

Neslin said COGCC has “increased the tools available to inspectors through their (laptop) computers, so they’re able to be more efficient in utilizing their time.

“In a time of tough budgets, we have to do more with less.”

17,000 inspections last year
Last year, the commission conducted more than 17,000 inspections – mostly unannounced, according to Neslin – which was a significant jump from the 9,991 performed the previous year.

This year, the commission’s inspectors performed 9,513 inspections just through August, according to its website.

Tisha Schuller, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents the industry, said fracking now makes up about 95 percent of the wells being drilled in the state.

Schuller said it would be “inappropriate for me to comment” on whether the state is doing an adequate job inspecting fracked wells.
But she said she believes the state is making a concerted effort to better regulate the industry.
“Every aspect of drilling is regulated in Colorado, including hydraulic fracturing,” she said. “Every (fracked) well has layers of cement and steel casing to insulate and protect the groundwater. We have records to demonstrate that casing is being done correctly.”

In late October, the EPA announced it would begin a process to set national rules for treating wastewater discharged from fracking operations.

Currently, each state sets its own rules on the treatment or disposal of injected and produced water from fracking. In Colorado, that usually involves hauling water away from the drill site to an approved underground injection well below the groundwater table.

Neslin said the COGCC is responsible for the underground water disposal program, which he believes is being safely administered.

“(The wastewater is) injected deep underground where they will not impact potential sources of drinking water, and we report annually to the EPA,” he said.

Good balance
Ed Holloway, president of Platteville-based Synergy Resources, said he believes there is a good balance of enforcement and environmental consciousness in local oil and gas fields.

“In my 30 years in the oil business, the regulations and requirements have gotten more strict, and for good reason in a lot of cases,” he said. “But our industry is more environmentally conscious and more environmentally concerned than we are ever given credit for.”

Holloway said he doesn’t believe oil and gas companies intentionally pollute the environment. “The penalties are so severe, I just don’t know of a company that would intentionally try to pollute anything,” he said. “It’s just too big a risk.

“I think the industry, especially in Colorado, has a very strong handle on this whole issue,” he said. “They’re on top of it.”

Both COGCC and COGA say they’re working together to make the public aware of what’s in the fracking solutions being injected into the ground and in base-lining existing water supplies across the state.

This summer, COGA and the Department of Natural Resources announced a new voluntary statewide groundwater quality sampling program for the oil and gas industry.

The program applies to new wells, and water quality data before and after drilling will be collected by COGCC, which will manage the database and produce an annual report.

“We think it’s a very valuable step forward and a good example of the state and the industry working together to help protect the environment,´ said Neslin.

In April, the Groundwater Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission debuted fracfocus.org, a new website where oil and gas companies voluntarily list the ingredients of their fracking fluids.

And on Dec. 5, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold a public hearing on new proposed rules regarding public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

The proposed rules are expected to be posted on COGCC’s website by Nov. 10.
So how really safe is fracking?

Even the industry’s Schuller acknowledges there’s more work to be done.

“There have been incidents in Colorado, both of groundwater contamination and surface spills,” she said. “This is not an industry without incidents, but we’re continually working to improve our operations.”

New stores of natural gas and oil deposits are out there waiting to be extracted in a process called hydraulic fracturing, but there’s only a tiny contingent of state inspectors to make sure it’s done safely.

That’s raising some red flags among environmentalists and others who worry that the state’s oil-and-gas monitoring efforts are no match for rapidly expanding drilling operations across Colorado.

And with more than 47,000 active wells and only 15 full-time inspectors, the numbers don’t favor a vigilant inspection program.

Hydraulic fracturing – sometimes called fracking for short – involves injecting thousands of gallons of chemical-laden water into rock layer…

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