FRACTURED: Meet The New Drillers
At the Weld County border, frustrated homeowners warn about the oil and gas operator heading to Boulder
Editor’s note: Daniel Glick and Ted Wood of The Story Group, along with Kelsey Ray of The Colorado Independent, have been reporting on oil and gas issues for our ongoing series: Fractured. Fractured examines the science, politics and humanity of oil and gas development and explores its impacts on Coloradans around the state.
Gary Gianetti is no fractivist.
He moved to his house in Erie four years ago, on the Boulder County side of County Line Road, fully aware that he was entering the world of Weld County drilling. He gets occasional royalty checks for the minerals under his home. He drives a diesel truck. This fitness trainer, father and 11-year Colorado resident has no qualms with the oil and gas industry.
He does, however, have a big problem with Crestone Peak Resources, the company operating an oil and gas rig near his home.
“They just aren’t, in my opinion, a very honest company,” he says. “They’re not transparent.”
In the past five months, Gianetti has filed 35 separate complaints with the state against Crestone, alleging that the noise, smell and vibrations of the drilling operations give him headaches, worsen his asthma and keep him and his wife up all night. He says inspectors have come to his home to conduct sound studies, but that he’s never seen the data. He says his calls to the company go unanswered.
For Gianetti, the worst — at least for this particular patch of development — is nearly over. After the wells near his home are fracked in the coming days, the minerals will flow into a pipeline, and the most significant noises, smells and other frustrations will subside. He’s speaking out about his concerns, then, not for himself, but for his neighbors: Crestone Peak is heading to Boulder County.
License to drill
Boulder County currently has about 310 operating oil and gas wells, but it has not seen new development since 2012, when it passed a moratorium on new drilling activity. Following a state Supreme Court ruling last May which deemed similar bans in Longmont and Ft. Collins unconstitutional, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman in February filed a lawsuit against the county, threatening legal action unless the moratorium was lifted by May 1. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institution soon joined the suit.
Apparently stuck between a rock and a hard place, Boulder County’s Board of Commissioners chose not to object to Coffman’s demands. They instead used the remaining months to finalize a set of new oil and gas regulations, which they say are the strictest in the state. On Monday, to the disappointment of residents and commissioners alike, the ban officially expired. The new regulations went into effect the same day. On the day the moratorium ended, while a crowd of anti-fracking activists protested at the county courthouse and implored the commissioners to reinstate the ban, Crestone had already begun laying the groundwork for more than 200 wells.
Crestone is a Denver-based “investment vehicle” established in July 2016 with the $900 million acquisition, by the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board and Denver real estate company The Broe Group, of Encana Corporation’s assets in the Denver-Julesberg Basin. It is the fifth-largest producer in the basin, overseeing 51,000 net acres, and has drilled more than 2,000 wells.
Boulder’s new rules are intended to make the drilling process more arduous than ever before. They will require companies applying for drilling permits in the unincorporated county to participate in extensive public comment periods, make “nuisance” payments to residents who are affected by the inconveniences of drilling and install air and water monitoring systems. Companies will also face a review by the county’s land use staff before siting any wells, and will not be allowed to drill injection wells — reservoirs for “produced” water that contains various chemicals associated with the drilling process — or to construct facilities in floodplains.
Oil and gas industry leaders have pledged to fight these new rules, which they say essentially constitute a ban. But at least for now, Crestone is playing along.
In March, the company applied for a “Comprehensive Drilling Plan” to drill up to 216 wells on a 12 square mile area near Highway 287 and Colorado 52, between Longmont and Lafayette. There, the difference between well-dotted Weld County and less developed Boulder is stark.
State regulators developed these comprehensive plans in 2008 as a way to encourage greater community participation in oil and gas development, but Crestone is the first company to take advantage of the planning tool. The company is believed to be using the plan as an act of good faith towards Boulder — and also, perhaps, to call its bluff. If the county truly is interested in pursuing safe, regulated oil and gas development, they will have to cooperate with Crestone. If the regulations are meant to act as a ban, the industry will likely make good on its promise to sue.
As part of its proposal, Crestone requested a temporary pause in all drilling in the 12-mile space, hoping to ward off hungry operators while it works out the kinks with county regulators. Drillers Anadarko and Extraction Oil and Gas first balked, deadlocking Crestone’s proposal. The matter was set to be settled during a hearing with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) on May 1. But in a last-minute deal the night before, all three operators agreed to a nine-month “standstill.”
The COGCC will not allow any drilling in the 12-mile area until Feb. 1, 2018, when Crestone will present a Comprehensive Development Plan to the commission.
The COGCC is the state’s oil and gas regulatory body, but it does not regulate air quality. That means that when Gianetti had complaints about smell or health concerns, the COGCC redirected them to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). For privacy reasons, the health department does not publicize individual complaints, but an aggregated report shows that from Oct. 2015 to Oct. 2016, the most common complaints were neurological, respiratory and related to eyes, ears, nose and throat. Frack-happy Weld County accounted for 41 percent of all complaints. The report does not say how many complaints the state received.
The COGCC, however, stores all resident complaints, verbatim, in its database. “When my house is quiet it sounds like a diesel truck is running in my driveway,” reads one of Gary Gianetti’s first complaints, from December 2016. A few days later, he wrote, “Still strong smells of diesel and noise.” As time went on, he complained of “vibrating noise” and “a deep bass sound.” He used the word “again” a lot, once even employing a smiley emoticon, perhaps cheekily wondering if he was shouting into the void. “Do you even do anything about these complaints?” he asked once. Later, he wrote, “Absolutely no way they are within sound limits. It is louder than passing cars and keeping me and my family awake.”
According to the COGCC, everything Gianetti heard was within sound limits. As Crestone spokesman Jason Oates pointed out, none of Gianetti’s 35 complaints — indeed, not one of the more than 130 complaints Crestone has received from various community members since 2016 — has led to a finding of violation.
Oates acknowledges that not everyone will be satisfied. “We are meeting all the rules, but the rules are not a guarantee that people are going to be accepting or tolerate that level of noise,” he said. “And yes, at some places there were complaints about odor, but through all the agencies and our own testing we have not exceeded any air quality standards.” According to Dr. Larry Wolk, Colorado’s Chief Medical Officer, the CDPHE’s odor standards were adopted by the Air Quality Control Commission and “are consistent with thresholds used by other states and jurisdictions.”
Oates also discredited residents who file complaints, saying, “I would be remiss to not say that I think there is a misuse of the complaint system occurring by people who are opponents of the oil and gas industry to try to smear companies like Crestone.” Gianetti says he’s doing no such thing, and is simply creating a real-time record of his concerns. His neighbor Eileen Rojas, who has also filed numerous complaints, agrees.
“There was one day when the smell was so bad and I called them, I said it’s horrible today, it’s starting to seep into my house,” she said. The woman she spoke with promised to call her “right back,” Rojas says, but never did. Her gratitude for the response she did get is telling: “At least it was nice because she answered the phone.”
After multiple calls and emails, including a main office number that was apparently disconnected, The Colorado Independent was able to get Crestone on the phone. Spokesman Oates was patient and thorough, explaining that the company sets up sound meters near homes once they begin operating and is working to understand why the petroleum smell residents have complained about is present only sometimes.
But both Gianetti and Rojas say that between the COGCC, the CDPHE and Crestone, they simply could not find relief. Gianetti hoped to review the data from a sound study he requested that was conducted in his home, but found the nondisclosure agreement he was asked to sign too arduous. In refusing to sign, he apparently gave up the ability to review the results. Rojas, a biomedical scientist, feels that the state health department is failing to take the health and safety impacts of oil and gas development seriously enough.
“I think the CDPHE is reading these studies with very tinted glasses,” she said, noting that she has read through some of the studies they have completed. “I think they need to do a better job of parsing through the data, of looking at the data coming from the rest of the country, and I think they need to apply the data better to our state,” she said, adding bluntly, “I think they’re wrong. I think fracking is harmful.”
Reiterating that keeping residents happy is a “moving target,” Oates stressed the temporary nature of drilling. “Again, it isn’t permanent, and we’ll try to get out of here as quickly as possible,” he said. “But for the time being, this is something that will just have to be endured.”
Ready or not
Kendra Carberry had been expecting this, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a surprise.
An attorney who works with local governments on the Front Range, Carberry lives on Kenosha Road in east Boulder County, within the Comprehensive Development Plan area. She had only been living in her house for two months after rebuilding from the 2013 floods when she learned about Crestone’s plans.
She and her neighbors are organized, and Carberry is talking to a local environmental attorney about what to expect going forward. But she says her neighborhood group isn’t protesting, and that, “In some ways, we’re supportive of Crestone’s efforts to do this.” She says she and her neighbors, none of whom she characterized as “fractivists,” bought their homes “knowing full well that oil and gas was around,” and hopes that a more comprehensive approach will lead to a safer and less intrusive operation. She already has 30 wells within a mile of her home.
That’s one potential aspect of Crestone’s entrance to the area that appeals to her — if the operator agrees to plug and abandon existing vertical wells in exchange for fewer well pads, Carberry will be relieved not to have to contend with as much truck traffic. Traffic and noise are her biggest concerns, she says, before admitting, “Obviously what happened in Firestone makes us a little more concerned about safety.” She isn’t certain that the Boulder regulations are sufficient, but says she’s glad to live on the Boulder side of the county line.
Carberry says she isn’t trying to make this “a NIMBY thing,” but just wants to make sure she’s involved in the discussion. She has specific hopes, including that Crestone uses pipelines and utilizes bigger roads, like Highway 52, rather than risking damage to Kenosha Road.
Reflecting on Crestone’s proposal for Boulder County, Rojas said, “I am quite concerned.” She said she hopes that Boulder County will see more of a resistance from the people, and that residents will speak up and ask more questions. Otherwise, she worries, “I think that one day they’re going to wake up and realize that they have a problem, a serious problem on their hands.”
Says Carberry, “I’m a lawyer, so I’m not that optimistic, but we’re hopeful. We’ll give Crestone a chance.”
Meanwhile, Rojas and her husband have already discussed plans to move out of state.
Cover image: The 15-well site Woolley Becky Sosa development on County Line Road, operated by Crestone Peak Resources. The drilling is in Weld County, but the houses are in Boulder County. (Photo by Adam Stielstra.)
Other photos by Ted Wood and Mark Kadlecek. Video by Ted Wood/The Story Group.
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