• While growth of gas mining has upside, concerns exist about environmental risk of hydraulic fracking.
  • Activists look to extend setback in Colorado to 300 meters to address groundwater concerns.
  • Growth of fracking in New York State has met with protest.

colorado_frackingFracking is not a method for drilling or otherwise constructing a well, as many people think. Rather, the hydraulic fracturing of rocks is a way to extract natural gas from far below the ground. It has strong economic and land use implications, especially in the West, where the process is fairly new, but it is not without controversy.

Experts from both sides of the issue gathered at the Urban Land Institute’s annual fall conference in Denver on Oct. 18 to talk about what Colorado is doing to address to balance the economic payoff with the property rights of homeowners and farmers.

According to Dag Nummedal, an expert on fracking who kicked off the session with a primer on the practice, rock busting is clean, safe and has the potential to put older, coal burning factories out of business. Fracking, he said, “has a very, very big upside.”

“There’s a 40-year history of research and theoretical modeling behind it,”said the geologist, who is director of the Colorado Energy Research Institute at the Colorado School of Mines. “A tremendous amount of science has evolved over the years. Fracking is well understood and gets better every year. This is not something we just walked into.”

Nevertheless, according to Thomas West of the West Firm in Albany, N.Y., fracking has evolved over the last four or five years into “one of the most controversial uses of all-time.” Although more than two million wells have been drilled worldwide – a million in the U.S. alone – over the past four decades, he told the meeting, energy producers have been fighting with environmental groups and “gotten nowhere.”

“It is like hand to hand combat every day,” the environmental lawyer said. “Our positions are very polarized, and we’ve made no progress. We can’t even agree on how to spell it.” (Some spell it frac, others frak, and still others, frack.)

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fluid into the well under controlled pressure over a short period of time – usually five to seven days – to create fractures in a targeted rock formation, permitting oil or natural gas to flow to the well, which is sometimes thousands of feet deep.

One of the issues with the practice is what happens with the fluid that is forced down into the ground. It becomes waste, but how is it disposed of? Another big question has to do with the chemicals, mostly salt, that are added to the fluid. Do they contaminate nearby groundwater? And then there’s the fear of earthquakes. Can the process cause rock beds below the surface to shift enough to cause seismic events?

According to West, a leading authority on oil and gas well siting in New York and surrounding states, fracking became “a cause celebre” for environmental organizations when it was proposed in his state. Even though the proposed wells were “nowhere near” New York City, the environmental lawyer said, opponents argued the wells would contaminate the city’s water supply. “They attacked all aspects of the process, from well siting to water disposal,” he said.

But the attorney told the meeting that it’s “almost impossible” to contaminate the groundwater. “It has never happened,” he said. And wells are drilled so deep and under controlled pressure, he added, that the possibility of an earthquake is “extremely remote.”

West also reported that energy companies have made “great strides” when it comes to wastewater disposal. Some 90 percent of it is recycled, he said. And even though the chemicals added to the water are similar to those used by homeowners to treat their backyard swimming pools, he said, industry “is constantly looking for ways to reduce” the additives.

Speaking for environmentalists, Charlie Montgomery, a self-proclaimed “fractivist,” said the two sides in the debate may not be as far apart as West thinks.

“We’re not for or against fracking,” said Montgomery, an energy organizer for the Colorado Environmental Coalition, the state’s largest organization committed to conserving clean air, water and open space. “Although some places should be off limits” to fracturing wells, he said, the CEC is not out to ban the practice. “If it’s going to happen, we should do so responsibly, guided by the highest standards of production.”

Colorado’s suburban homeowners’ main fear is an invasion of oil and gas wells, the activist said. Not only do most not want to live near one or more wells, he told the meeting, the lights, noise, vibration and truck traffic all but kills property values. “Owners see their land as their refuge, and they don’t want it disturbed,” he said.

The organizer also said the problem is not so much what goes into the well as what comes out. Some producers use chemicals that are pretty benign, he noted. But other use mixtures that are noxious when they reach the surface. “Even if they use just water,” he added, “it can release noxious odors that are already in the ground.”

Some drillers have left the water to stand, where it leaches into and contaminates the groundwater, Montgomery also said. And he expressed concerns about surface spills, which occur on a daily basis, according to the Denver Post.

Despite these reservations, though, Montgomery said the real issue revolves around the distance from homes to wells. Currently, wells in Colorado can be no closer than 100 meters in suburban neighborhoods and 50 meters in rural locations. But there is a proposal on the table to fix the setback at a uniform 100 meters unless the owner agrees to a closer well.

But the CEC would like to see a wider swath of protection. It believes wells should be no closer than 300 meters unless strict protections are in place and the homeowner gives his or her consent.