Critics claim Colorado gas drillers playing both sides of ‘fracking’ debate

Some of the biggest natural gas producers in Colorado are part of a coalition of operators in the massive Marcellus Shale play in the eastern United States that is backing “full disclosure” of chemicals used in the controversial drilling process called hydraulic fracturing.

Oil and gas drilling near the Roan Plateau. (Photo/Ecoflight.info)

But critics say those same companies – specifically EnCana and the Williams Companies – have a different standard when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in Colorado.

Kathryn Klaber, executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, recently told the Scranton Times Tribune that the industry is “absolutely supportive of full disclosure” of fracking chemicals to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection – including the names of the chemicals and the total volume – to landowners, emergency responders and local governments.

That goes beyond what the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved in its amended rules that went into effect in the spring of 2009. The Colorado rule requires operators to keep a chemical inventory on-site at each well and make that information available to emergency responders and local governments within 24 hours in the event of a spill.

Operators in Colorado, including Williams – the largest natural gas producer on the Western Slope – have opposed efforts by Colorado Democratic Congresswoman Diana DeGette to remove a federal exemption for the process under the Safe Drinking Water Act that was granted by the Bush administration in 2005.

A growing number of incidents involving groundwater contamination have led to calls for greater regulation of the process, which injects mostly water and sand at very high pressures deep into wells to fracture tight geological formations and free up gas. Chemicals ranging from food additives to toxic benzene are included in the mix in relatively small quantities.

States such as Wyoming and Pennsylvania have followed Colorado’s lead in stepping up regulation of the process that’s critical to opening up greater natural gas reserves across the country, and operators have begun discussing self-disclosure to head off U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulation.

But residents of areas of Colorado impacted by heavy natural gas drilling during the last boom cycle that ended in 2008 are worried that the next big upswing in drilling could expose them once again to potential drinking water contamination.

“It is curious to note that some operators like EnCana and Williams are willing to give full disclosure out East but not in the West,” Frank Smith, director of organizing for the environmental group Western Colorado Congress told the Colorado Independent. “As EnCana and Williams edge closer to Battlement Mesa, it is especially worth highlighting their disparate disclosure practices in public fashion.”

Battlement Mesa is a community of more than 5,000 on Colorado’s Western Slope that’s facing a proposed 200-well project in the heart of town and a growing number of wells encroaching on the outskirts of town.

Doug Hock, a Colorado-based spokesman for the Canadian company EnCana, told the Colorado Independent, “Our overall stance on the issue is support for increased disclosure of information regarding the composition of the fluids we use for hydraulic fracturing and active encouragement of our fluid suppliers, the owners of this information, to improve their public disclosure of fluid formulation information.”

Oil and gas service companies such as Halliburton produce and distribute fracking fluids to operators, prompting U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., a co-sponsor of DeGette’s bill, to say it would close the “Halliburton loophole.” Many operators and drilling services companies don’t want full disclosure because they consider the formulas proprietary information that gives them a competitive edge.

“Colorado increased disclosure by requiring an inventory of any chemical exceeding 500 pounds in quantity that is for ‘down-hole’ use,” Hock said. “Information on these chemicals must be provided in case of emergency – including the proprietary formula. And last month Wyoming passed regulations calling for more detailed disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids. EnCana favored both these measures.”

Still, the EPA is preparing to embark on a two-year study of the process and, in the wake of British Petroleum’s offshore spill in the Gulf of Mexico, federal intervention in the onshore drilling world is gaining momentum in several forms. Full public disclosure is even included in the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill called the American Power Act.

And more and more operators, including Texas-based Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy Corp., are taking preemptive action by offering up limited forms of disclosure, mostly on a well-by-well basis.

“One company in one region is a good start, but any community where fracking is occurring deserves similar information,” DeGette told the New York Times last week. “It is my hope that Range Resources and other companies engaged in fracking will support our efforts to create a more systematic and comprehensive method of disclosure.”

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About the Author

David O. Williams

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail
and Real Aspen.

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