Coloradans look to Texas, New York cases in gas fracking debate

Citizen activists on Colorado’s Western Slope are pointing to a Texas case of well-water contamination caused by oil and gas drilling activity as a prime example of what they want to avoid in this state and what regulators should be guarding against in heavily drilled Garfield County.

“This is what we are trying to prevent in Battlement Mesa,” said Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens, referring to an “Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Order” issued last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in South Park County, Texas, just west of Fort Worth.

While the EPA didn’t specifically blame the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for flammable and bubbling drinking water coming out of the taps of two Texas homes, the federal agency did point to the process in its press release:

“EPA believes that natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing that vital resource. However, we want to make sure natural gas development is safe. As we announced earlier this year, we are in the process of conducting a comprehensive study on the potential impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

“In the meantime, EPA has made energy extraction sector compliance with environmental laws one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011 to 2013. The initiative focuses on areas of the country where energy extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing are concentrated, and EPA’s enforcement activities will vary with the type of activity and pollution problem presented.”

Oil and gas industry officials have long maintained that fracking – a process that injects water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep underground to fracture tight geological formations and free up more natural gas – has never been proven to have caused a single case of drinking water contamination.

Opponents of fracking maintain that’s because the chemicals used in the process are kept secret for proprietary reasons and therefore can’t be traced. They want the federal government to compel companies to publicly disclose the chemical cocktail used in fracking. In the recent Texas case, the EPA cited elevated and dangerous levels of methane, which can cause explosions and fires, and benzene, which can be cancer-causing if ingested.

Industry officials in Colorado admit drilling activity has caused some cases of groundwater contamination, such as the Divide Creek Seep, but they blame faulty cement jobs in natural gas wells and other technological failures, not fracking, which they say is done deep underground and far from groundwater sources.

Texas-based Range Resources denies its activity led to the contamination, because its wells are in the “Barnett Shale formation, which is over a mile below the water zone.” But the wells are near the impacted homes, and in some Colorado communities, there’s a real fear that ramped-up drilling near increasingly dense residential areas will lead to similar cases.

Battlement Mesa, a community of more than 5,000 in unincorporated Garfield County, is faced with up to 200 new natural gas wells under a proposal by Denver-based Antero Resources. Residents there say the operator has proposed three new gas wells just outside the Planned Unit Development (PUD) in order to skirt county special use permit hearings.

Just last week, Battlement Concerned Citizens (BCC) won assurances from the three-member board of county commissioners that they would intervene with the state on those wells and request a permitting delay until an outside Health Impact Assessment (HIA) is completed.
“That was the best we could hope for,” BCC’s Devanney said. “They’re intervening; they’re going to call for a meeting; and they’re going to propose the [Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee] defer until after the HIA is done.”

The draft HIA, paid for by the county, is still being finalized.

“The comprehensive and complex nature of the comments received on the draft HIA has resulted in the need for further discussion between the [board of county commissioners] and the [Colorado School of Public Health] research team,” Garfield County environmental health officer Jim Rada said in an email. The board will again discuss the study at another meeting today in Glenwood Springs.

The BCC group last week also continued its push for the county to utilize its 1041 powers over gas drilling, which other counties have successfully used to direct infrastructure projects such as water diversion and power lines. Named for a 1974 bill, 1041 rules have never been used to regulate oil and gas drilling.

“It’s time for the county to step up to the plate and take more action to protect the citizens of the county here from the impacts of the intensity of oil and gas regulations, especially near residential communities, and hopefully they got that message,” BCC’s Ron Galterio said.

An Antero official did not return a call requesting comment.

Another Denver-based drilling company made headlines last week in the eastern part of the country.

Anschutz Exploration Company, owned by Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, has been linked to contaminated wells in New York’s massive Marcellus Shale play, although a company spokesman disputed it was the result of their drilling activities, which did not include fracking.

Denver-based Antero Resources, the company involved in Battlement Mesa, recently announced its own new venture into the Marcellus Shale, acquiring a West Virginia company (pdf) with holdings in that state and Pennsylvania.


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