Study: Emissions greatest after fracking is done

Ryan Hoffman
Citizen Telegram
This rig surrounded by sound walls was photographed from the grounds of the historic Battlement Mesa Schoolhouse.
Randy Essex / Post Independent |

When it comes to new natural gas development, emissions are noticeably greater during the flowback process than during the actual drilling or fracking processes.

That was one of the key findings in a much-anticipated analysis of emissions from natural gas drilling and completion operations in Garfield County. The report was presented to county commissioners Tuesday morning.

The study, which originated in 2011 when discussions between the county and researchers at Colorado State University started, is unique for several reasons, said Jeffrey Collett, head of the CSU Atmospheric Science Department.

Specifically, the study looked at the new well development process, on which there is very little data, according to Collett. The more-than-three-year study looked at emissions during the drilling, fracking and flowback processes — which occurs after fracking — for new well development.

Secondly, most studies specifically monitor for methane while the CSU report included methane and volatile organic compounds, some of which can be harmful to human health and contribute to ozone.

The consistent theme in the data was, regardless of what was being measured, the greatest emission across the board occurred during the flowback process, Collett said.

That finding was not necessarily a surprise — the fracking process involves injecting water and other substances into the ground, while flowback is the flowing of gas, water and other materials upward out of the ground — but until now, there has been little field work on emissions from process to process, Collett said, noting this study will be instrumental in driving future research not just in Colorado but across the country.

Collett also noted the access provided by industry — which had a handful of representatives in attendance Tuesday — in the county. He also clarified that financial contributions from industry players came in the form of gifts, which disqualified them from having a say in the scientific process. Industry funded the remainder of the $1.77 million study after Garfield County contributed $1 million.

Asked several times by Commissioner John Martin if any factors or influences may invalidate or call the study into question, Collett answered “no.”

The Garfield County assessment is expected to compliment a similar study that will be wrapping up in the next month on the Front Range. That analysis is looking at the fracking, flowback and production phases, the third of which was not included in the Garfield County study.

He expects the Front Range findings to be released by the end of July.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment plans to use data from the two studies to conduct a health risk assessment, which was one of nine recommendations from a governor’s oil and gas task force in early 2015.

The assessment will likely look at the potential health impacts, long-term and short-term, from exposure to certain chemicals during various phases of resource extraction.

Collett said he expects CDPHE to start that process in the near future.