Gas industry, critics weigh environmental practices in Garfield County |

Gas industry, critics weigh environmental practices in Garfield County

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Workers on a WPX Energy drill rig north of Parachute install steel casing in a natural gas well bore. The steel and cement casing are designed to prevent chemicals and water from leaking and polluting groundwater supplies.
Aubree Dallas/The Aspen Times |

While a major election battle looms in November over regulating the oil-and-gas industry, the only major producer currently operating in the Piceance Basin claims it has refined techniques to be a better environmental steward and neighbor.

WPX Energy recycles 100 percent of the water it uses in drilling and hydraulic fracturing and taps no fresh supplies. It invented a strategy to conduct hydraulic fracturing from a remote site, separate from the drilling rigs, to reduce truck traffic and noise affecting nearby homeowners. It uses directional drilling to bore multiple wells from one pad to reduce its surface disturbance. And it endorsed stricter limits of methane emissions and higher air-quality standards adopted by Colorado this year.

Despite those practices, WPX Community Relations representative Jeff Kirtland acknowledged some critics remain opposed to hydraulic fracturing and other gas-industry practices. WPX Energy believes much of the opposition stems from inaccurate information.

“From our perspective, it is a level of misunderstanding that’s hard to overcome,” Kirtland said.

It’s not from lack of trying. WPX hosts regular tours of its operations centered at Parachute, in western Garfield County. More than 80 journalists, business leaders and elected officials toured WPX facilities in June.

While the company’s wells are roughly 70 miles away from Aspen by road, activists in Garfield County say Aspen-area residents should be concerned and involved in the fight over regulation of the industry. Air and groundwater pollution know no boundaries, they contend.

‘Fracking’ draws opposition

Glenwood Springs activist Anita Sherman is helping efforts to get proposed state constitution amendments on the ballot in November to increase the power of local governments to regulate the oil-and-gas industry. Up to 11 regulatory proposals could end up on the ballot, depending on whether backers gather enough signatures

Activists are taking specific aim at hydraulic fracturing — the widespread technique of sending water, chemicals and sand underground at high pressure to creature tiny fractures that allow recovery of more of the hydrocarbons. “Fracking” is used nearly all the time in the Piceance Basin to complete a well after drilling.

Sherman said it doesn’t matter what WPX Energy is doing to ease its environmental impacts. It’s the bigger environmental picture that matters.

“The issue not being discussed by anyone who centers on industrial impact,” Sherman said in an email in response to questions by The Aspen Times. “The marketing by WPX and the industry as a whole is created to make us feel better about accepting activities that poison humanity and the environment for profit.

“Reducing impact that continues to violate our constitutional and human rights to clean air, clean water and protections from toxic trespassers is not the same as eliminating impact,” Sherman said.

Drilling, fracking improvements

On a recent Tuesday morning, when the temperature was already climbing past the 70s, Kirtland led a tour of journalists to WPX Energy’s operation just north of the town of Parachute.

The ground was scrapped flat and bare over 1½ acres, roughly the size of the El Jebel City Market. A drill rig anchored in the middle blared with the clank of metal pipes being fed to the drill bore and the high-pitched whine of generators.

WPX will drill 21 wells from that one pad. The drilling rig can be moved slightly to allow more wells to be bore from the single location. Directional drilling deep underground also is an industry innovation that lessens the disturbance on the surface (see related story on A8).

WPX also employs a strategy called SIMOPS, short for simultaneous operations. It allows drilling of new wells to be undertaken at the same time on the same pad while other wells are completed through hydraulic fracturing.

Prior to that practice, it would take 12 to 14 days to drill a well and another four days to complete it, Kirtland said. The simultaneous operations reduce drilling to seven to eight days and the completion to two to three days per well.

Another innovation applied by WPX is remote fracking. Instead of hauling the water tanks, sand containers and chemicals shipments to the drilling rig, they are set up as far as 1 mile away. In the case of the well pad where 21 wells are being drilled, the remote fracking site is set up one small valley to the east in a desolate canyon where there are no homes. Several generators scream to produce the energy required by the trucks to generate the pressure needed to send the mix of water, sand and chemicals underground at the incredible pressure of 4,000 to 6,000 pounds per square inch. Temporary pipelines send the fracking mix over to the drilling rig. The pipe can be reused to frack a different site.

“Our guys dreamed it up,” Kirtland said of the process. It’s more efficient for WPX, and it results in a lot fewer truck trips to a drill rig site. In this case, the drill pad hosting 21 wells is located about one-half mile from a handful of homes. They will be spared from the activity and sound of the fracking operation.

Eliminate traffic, reduce complaints

Kirtland said 90 percent of the complaints WPX historically received were over truck traffic. Since 2006, the company has reduced 90 percent of truck traffic by remote fracking and the innovation the company most widely touts — recycling water.

Williams Energy, the former parent company of WPX, constructed a water recycling plant for its Piceance Basin operations some years ago. WPX invested $9 million in a major upgrade of that facility north of Parachute in 2009. The investment made sense because of the size of its operations in the area and its commitment to the area, said Joe Lobato, facilities engineer. “We’ll be here in 20 years,” he said.

About 20,000 barrels of water are produced by WPX’s gas wells each day, Kirtland said. That water is shipped from the wells to the recycling plant by truck or through pipelines. It is treated at recycling plants at Parachute and Rulison under extensive state and federal regulations. The water reaches a level where it can be reused for drilling.

WPX has enough activity that it uses nearly all the water recycled, Lobato said. Whatever remains is offered to other producers, he said.

“We’re the only producer in the state treating water to this extent,” Kirtland said. “There is no other facility like this in the state.”

Drilling critic Sherman isn’t impressed by the steps taken by the industry or state regulators. Laws ban smokers from public places because of the toxic impacts they produce that affect the public, she said. Meanwhile, “tons of chemicals and waste pour into our streams, air and lands” even as the state and industry claim to follow environmentally sensitive standards, Sherman said.

“WPX and the marketing hype being promoted is about as environmentally responsible as putting a cork in an earthen dam leak and calling it an improved engineering fix,” Sherman said.