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Carbondale trustees still have doubts about drilling in Thompson Divide

John Colson
Post Independent
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – Despite assurances from EnCana Oil and Gas (USA) representatives, some Carbondale town trustees remain skeptical about the prospect of drilling activity to develop natural gas wells in the nearby Thompson Divide area.

“With all due respect, when [a well] fails, the potential risks are what people are afraid of,” Mayor Stacey Bernot said during a board of trustees work session on Tuesday.

Mark Balderston, a supervisor of hydraulic fracturing, and Sher Long, a corporate relations officer for EnCana, made a 90-minute presentation on drilling to the trustees during the work session. In late 2011, Encana took several trustees on a tour of gas wells in western Garfield County.



The Carbondale trustees have gone on record opposing drilling in the Thompson Divide area, in the mountains to the west and north of town, due to concerns about potential air pollution, water contamination and other impacts from drilling and industry activities.

The Thompson Divide Coalition has offered more than $2.5 million to six companies, including EnCana, to buy out the 44 gas leases the companies hold in the area.



Balderston told the trustees that his company is doing its best to satisfy citizen concerns about the industry, starting with improvements to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” operations.

He said fracking now can take as little as a day and a half per well.

Fracking involves the injection of water, sand and chemicals to break up rock formations as deep as 8,000 to 10,000 feet underground. The process frees up deposits of gas and oil and lets them flow to the surface.

The presentation by Balderston and Long was meant to inform the trustees of measures taken by the industry to avoid contamination of groundwater, minimize surface disturbances and limit the emission of air polluting chemicals.

“I think it was a nice presentation,” said Trustee Allyn Harvey, when reached by telephone on Wednesday. “It was largely a sales pitch on the virtues of modern-day fracking. I don’t think we came away with any real understanding of the true impacts of fracking.”

At the meeting, Harvey asked about the construction of roads to reach remote areas and set up the drilling rigs. Balderston said the industry uses existing roads in many cases.

Balderston told the trustees his company has moved away from using huge fleets of semi trucks to transport water to well sites. Fracking sometimes has involved as many as 8,000 truck trips per well, he said, but the company is now shifting to the use of pipelines rather than trucks.

Balderston said EnCana reuses the produced water, which surges back up out of a well that has been fracked, over and over at other wells. Produced water is laden with fracking chemicals as well as hydrocarbons and other substances from the gas-bearing regions.

But at some point it is no longer usable, and is disposed of in injection wells, he said.

When questioned further, Balderston conceded that injection wells are thought to contribute to earthquakes in some states, though he said it has not been reported in Colorado.

Long said the industry is closely regulated by the state to minimize spills, leaks and other potential accidents that might put toxic chemicals into the environment.

Balderston added that EnCana is required to send in a constant stream of monitoring reports and other documents to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC).

Trustee Pam Zentmyer asked if all that data is actually reviewed by COGCC overseers.

“They don’t have the manpower,” Balderston said, to review every report. But the information is submitted and available for review, as required.

He told Zentmyer that the COGCC has never contacted the company about a problem revealed by those reports.

“We would call them first,” he said, if a problem was detected at the company’s facilities.

Balderston reeled off a list of fracking chemicals that kill bacteria and prevent the “souring” of a well, that prevent the formation of mineral scales in pipelines and other equipment, or that ease the flow of gas up to the surface.

He said EnCana is “telling the world what we’re doing” by disclosing the chemicals used in its processes.

Both he and Long said the ongoing debate about disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking has more to do with reluctance among well services companies, such as Halliburton or Schlumberger, which have balked at revealing their industrial secrets to competitors.

At the Tuesday meeting, Trustee Frosty Merriott asked why, if disclosure of the chemicals is not a problem, the industry is exempt from the federal Clean Water Act. An exemption was granted to the industry in 2005 by the Bush administration.

Long promised to look into the question and get back with a reply.

In Merriott’s eyes, this potential for contamination of local air and water is unacceptable.

“These leases should be extinguished,” said Merriott, when reached by telephone on Wednesday. “They should just take the financial offer and walk away.”

jcolson@postindependent.com


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