The highly-anticipated EPA study “Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States” (“study”) released in December 2016, sent shockwaves through media outlets due to a change in the language of the study’s major finding from the draft version that emerged in June 2015. The 2015 draft stated that the EPA “did not find evidence that” fracking mechanisms “have led to widespread, systematic impacts on drinking water in the United States.” In contrast, the new study revealed conclusions that describe “how activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle can impact—and have impacted—drinking water resources and the factors that influence the frequency and severity of those impacts.”

Because ambiguity in the study’s findings can be construed to support different sides, the study provides fuel for both anti-fracking activists and industry supporters. Nevertheless, the study also provides scientific insight into the process that can be used by state and local policy makers to create tailored regulations to mitigate potential water contamination risks. Thus far, the federal government has not passed any legislation directly addressing fracking, so much of the regulation has been left to state and local governments. Further, with the new administration’s plans to reduce the size of the EPA and roll back environmental regulation, state and local governments will likely continue to be the major source of fracking regulation.

The study provides local governments with much needed data about when risks of contamination are greatest and the factors that contribute to the occurrence and severity of contamination. Local governments can use the data to create targeted mitigation procedures and regulations to ensure that cheap energy sources can continue to be tapped while protecting valuable drinking water resources.

 

The Study

The goal of the EPA’s study was to assess the potential for activities in the fracking water cycled to impact the quality and quantity of drinking water, and identify factors that affect the frequency and severity of those impacts. The study broke down the fracking water cycle into five stages to examine the potential for contamination of drinking water during each stage. The stages and activities of the fracking water cycle are: (1) water acquisition; (2) chemical mixing; (3) well injection; (4) produced water handling; and (5) wastewater disposal and reuse. Each step will be summarized in turn along with policy recommendations.

 

Water Acquisition

Water acquisition is the first stage in the fracking process where ground water is withdrawn or surface water is transferred to make fracking fluids. The study found that fracking uses a small percentage of water relative to total water use with some notable exceptions. Notable for state and local governments, the EPA concluded that, despite fracking using a relatively small percentage of water, fracking water withdrawals can affect the quantity and quality of drinking water resources by changing the balance between other local demands. The EPA found that water management strategies could be used to reduce the frequency and severity of such impacts.

To address water acquisition concerns, local governments should explore alternative sources to be used for fracking in order to preserve freshwater resources for other uses. Incentivizing the recycling of produced water and tapping alternative resources such as brackish water to be used in the fracking process would mitigate the impact that fracking water acquisition has on local resources.

 

Chemical Mixing

Chemical mixing is the stage in the fracking process where water is mixed with sand, proppants, and other additives at the wellsite in preparation for injection. The EPA found that spills of fracking fluid and additives during chemical mixing have reached surface water resources in some cases and have the potential to reach ground water resources. Large volume spills have the greatest potential to reach ground water resources, and highly concentrated spills have the potential to most severely impact drinking water resources. Naturally, large volume spills have the potential to increase the frequency of impacts on drinking water, and groundwater impacts would likely be more severe than surface water impacts given that it is generally difficult to remove chemicals from groundwater resources.

Chemical mixing concerns require regulations to mitigate the potential for spills, especially when large volumes or highly concentrated mixtures are being handled. The oil and gas industry could play a major role in spill mitigation by adopting standard mixing and handling procedures.

 

Well Injection

Well injection is the point in the water cycle when fracking fluids are injected into a production well in order to free oil and gas molecules from the targeted rock formation. The EPA found that water in the injection stage has impacted drinking water resources due to mechanical failures that have allowed gases or liquids to move to underground drinking water resources. The study highlighted the importance of the distance of vertical separation between the targeted rock formation and drinking water resources by highlighting cases of contamination where little or no vertical separation existed between the targeted formation and drinking water resources existed.groundwater in Pavillion, Wyoming.

Geological surveying can be used to analyze whether adequate vertical separation exists between the targeted formation and drinking water resources. However, this is a limitation identified by the study because most of the geological information is proprietary to the operator and is not readily searchable by the public. The study asserts that the presence of casing, cement, and thousands of feet of rock between drinking water and the target formation can reduce the frequency or impacts during the water injection stage. However, when inadequate vertical separation exists, local governments should impose permitting requirements based on environmental impacts studies in order to mitigate instances of contamination during the well injection stage. Additionally, casing and cement integrity should be monitored before and after injection, and pressure should be monitored to ensure that the barriers did not fail during the process.

 

Produced Water Handling 

Produced water handling is the stage when water returns to the surface after fracking and is transported for disposal or reuse. The EPA found that spills of produced water during the water handling stage have reached groundwater and surface water resources in some cases. Like water spilled in the mixing stage, large volume spills have higher potential of reaching groundwater resources. Furthermore, the saline produced water can potentially migrate through soil into groundwater resources, leading to longer-term groundwater contamination.

As with mixing concerns, produced water handling impacts can be mitigated by enforcing standardized collection and handling procedures. Minimizing human error could greatly reduce the frequency and severity of spills while handling produced water. Also, creation of response mitigation plans for when spills do occur would reduce the severity of impact from spills.

 

Wastewater Disposal

The wastewater disposal and reuse stage typically involves the injection of produced water into disposal wells. Water is sometimes disposed of by using evaporation ponds and percolation pits also. Wastewater is sometimes put to beneficial uses such as irrigation if the quality is high enough, or it can be treated at water treatment facilities and discharged into surface water resources. Additionally, an increasing percentage of produced water has been reused in the fracking process. The EPA found that aboveground disposal of fracking water has impacted the groundwater and surface water in some instances, particularly where water was inadequately treated before discharge into surface water resources. Disposal in lined and unlined pits has also impacted groundwater and surface water resources, particularly because unlined pits provide a direct pathway for contaminants to reach groundwater. The EPA also noted that disposal wells have been associated with earthquakes in several states, thus reducing the availability of their use.

Each method of disposal and reuse presents unique problems that require collaboration between the industry and local governments. Increasing the availability of water treatment facilities is an attractive solution, because treated water could in turn be used for other beneficial uses. However, treatment is expensive and would likely require public and industry investment. The potential to turn produced water into useable water could help Colorado communities that have growing domestic needs as well as growing industrial needs meet their growing water demands. Funding mechanisms such as tax-exempt bonds, public improvement fees, or tax increment financing could be used get water treatment facilities built. Additionally, depending on which entity would have the legal rights to the newly cleaned water, water could be sold on the open market to help service the debt that was incurred by the entity to build the facility.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, fracking continues to play a vital role in helping the United States achieve its energy goals. The study provides an initial roadmap of areas for local governments to target potential risks of drinking water contamination during the fracking process in a meaningful way. The study has set local governments up to create targeted mitigation procedures and regulations to ensure that cheap energy sources can continue to be tapped while protecting valuable drinking water resources.

Dalton Kelley

Sources

Envtl. Prot. Agency, Draft: Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (June 2015), https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/hf_es_erd_jun2015.pdf.

Coral Davenport, Reversing Course, E.P.A. Says Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water, The New York Times (Dec. 13, 2016),

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/us/reversing-course-epa-says-fracking-can-contaminate-drinking-water.html.

Timothy Cama, Trump Team Plans Big Cuts at EPA, The Hill (Jan. 23, 2017, 9:57 AM),

http://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/315607-trump-team-plans-big-cuts-at-epa.

Envtl. Prot. Agency, Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources (Dec. 2016), http://ofmpub.epa.gov/eims/eimscomm.getfile?p_download_id=530159.

 

Image: A natural gas drilling rig on the Pinedale Anticline, just west of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. WikiCommons user Bureau of Land Management, Creative Commons.”


The heavy rainfall and flooding that occurred in the second week of September brought devastation to many families, homes, and businesses in Colorado.  With 374 families remaining in temporary housing, recovery from the storms has been a slow process for those acutely affected.  After the rain subsided and the flood levels receded, another concern emerged for Coloradans: damage to oil and gas operations in the floodway.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”), a state agency in the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, is responsible for the regulation of oil and gas development in the state.  During the extensive rainfall and following the destructive flooding, the COGCC worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (“FEMA”), the Colorado emergency response operations, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), and other organizations to oversee the response to spills and oil and gas operations damaged in the flood.

Alan Gilbert, an attorney with decades of experience in energy and environmental law, was appointed Special Assistant to the Executive Director for Flood Response to monitor the inspection and cleanup of oil and gas operations.  On Friday, November 8, Mr. Gilbert gave a presentation to the Natural Resources Section of the Colorado Bar Association to outline the COGCC’s ongoing response to the flood damage.

Mr. Gilbert noted that Colorado has many wells that operate within floodplains of the St. Vrain and Platte Rivers in central and northeast Colorado.  Often, these well sites were chosen to keep drilling operations off of valuable agricultural land.  During the first few days of heavy rain, when it became clear that massive flooding was imminent, oil and gas companies with wells in the floodplains preemptively started to shut-in wells.  Mr. Gilbert explained that when a well is shut-in, valves are closed to stop production, which creates a seal between the well bore and the land surface.  This process contains any oil or gas underground if surface operations are damaged.  Fortunately, a majority of wells today can be shut-in remotely, but some still require employees to manually shut-in the well at the well site.  In total, oil companies shut-in 2,603 wells during the flooding.  Today, 691 of the wells remain shut-in, awaiting inspection or repairs before resuming operations.  However, with these wells closed and not in production, leaseholders, including many families that depend on the income, will not receive any royalty payments.

Fortunately, Mr. Gilbert explained, the shut-in wells withstood the flooding with almost no damage or leaks reported to the well structures themselves.  However, many storage tanks, soil and metal berms around wells, and pipelines sustained damage from water flow or debris carried by the water.  As many media pictures reported, the flooding toppled some tanks; unanchored pipelines and caused leaks; lifted some underground tanks to the surface; and caused oil, condensate, and produced water to escape in certain areas.  While the rain continued to fall, the COGCC began discussing how to address the problems.  The COGCC, with EPA assistance, took aerial surveys of affected areas and began traveling to the areas to inspect damaged wells.  The COGCC brought in and trained many additional teams of inspectors to handle the increased workload.

The COGCC, through inspections and operator reports, immediately began to compile and assess spill data.  As of November 8, the COGCC reported total spills of 1,149 barrels (48,250 gallons) of oil and condensate and 1,035 barrels (43,479 gallons) of produced water originating from storage tanks and leaking pipelines.  These totals came from forty-nine total spills, fourteen of which were in excess of twenty barrels.  Twenty spills only comprised produced water, and the single largest spill amounted to 323 barrels.  Mr. Gilbert reported that there was no single catastrophic spill and no significant buildup of spilled material in any area.

A major concern of Coloradans revolved around the effects of flooding on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).  However, the COGCC reported that no fracking operations were active in the floodplains during the flooding, and thus no fracking fluid spillage.  Mr. Gilbert explained that fracking is not a continuous operation in oil and gas production and only takes place during limited times at each well site.  While the initial staging of two fracking operations started at the beginning of the rainfall, operators moved both of them safely out of the affected areas before significant flooding occurred.  Although many media outlets speculated about discovering fracking disasters when the water receded, these fears were unnecessary as all fracking had terminated prior to the flooding.

Since the floodwaters have receded, the COGCC has taken many steps to respond to the damage, including assisting operators to inspect and repair damaged equipment, cleaning up any spilled toxic substances, and continuing evaluations of damage and response efforts.  The professional, technically trained staff of the COGCC has researched and written many reports to assist the industry in safely cleaning up, repairing, and returning affected oil and gas operations to normal production.  These reports include start-up procedures for undamaged shut-in wells, worker health and safety information for workers exposed to floodwaters containing E. coli and other hazards, recommended practices for flood impact zone reconstruction, and a notice to operators of new reporting requirements  for wells in flood impact zones.  Finally, the COGCC has requested a formal report from the oil and gas industry outlining all spills and damage.  In addition, an interim committee has been formed in the Colorado General Assembly to provide further oversight of the cleanup operations.

Mr. Gilbert reported that the COGCC has learned many lessons from the flooding that will better prepare them for future floods.  First, while both soil and metal berms should be built around wells to contain any material in case of a spill, the flooding and debris from this flood demonstrated that the metal berms stood up to the damage much better than soil.  Second, the anchoring systems for tanks and pipelines need better design and construction to keep tanks in place during violent weather.  Third, wells with remote shut-in capabilities are very beneficial to control wells inaccessible due to dangerous weather.  The COGCC is planning to hold future workshops to discuss COGCC action in response to these lessons.

In summary, no form of energy production is without risk, and it is important that oil and gas operations in Colorado are well prepared to prevent spills, even in the face of the most violent natural disasters.  While all spills of toxic materials are significant and serious, the quick action by the oil and gas industry and immediate response to the flooding by the COGCC kept Colorado lands free from any major threat to the environment or public health.

 

Additional Resources

The COGCC has documented and published all reports about the flooding and response on their website at http://cogcc.state.co.us/Announcements/Hot_Topics/Flood2013/Flood.htm. The website includes the COGCC map showing wells in the flood impact zone; COGCC start-up procedures for undamaged shut-in wells; COGCC health and safety information for workers exposed to floodwaters containing E. coli and other hazards; and COGCC recommended practices for flood impact zone well reconstruction.


In August, Broomfield joined other communities in Colorado who seek to ban hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”).  Broomfield will vote on the five year fracing ban in November, as will other communities including Fort Collins, Lafayette, and Boulder.  Many of the people opposed to fracing near their communities are concerned with public health and potential dangers to water quality.  A recent Duke University study linked shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania to local groundwater contamination, fueling the controversy.  In an effort to respond to public concern about the effects of fracing, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (“COGCC”) passed a new rule, Rule 609, early in 2013 to inform the public what effect, if any, oil and gas wells have on groundwater throughout the entire state of Colorado.  The COGCC has statutory authority to make and enforce rules to regulate the oil and gas industry in order to safeguard public health and the environment, which includes groundwater.

Rule 609 requires statewide groundwater testing and works in conjunction with earlier Rule 318A.e(4), which mandates area-specific water sampling in the Greater Wattenberg Area (“GWA”), an area south and southeast of Fort Collins.   When passing Rule 609, the COGCC amended Rule 318A.e(4) to acknowledge the large amount of existing oil and gas activity within the GWA region and the large quantity of groundwater samples that  parties had already collected, analyzed, and reported to the COGCC.  The amended rule requires operators in the GWA to take one groundwater sample before drilling a new well unless sampling previously occurred in that location within the last five years, and that sampling data is already on file with the COGCC.  Therefore, while the new Rule 609 does not regulate the GWA, the dual effect of the amended rule 318A.e(4) and the large quantity of existing water samples makes the application of the new rule redundant.

 

COGCC’s New Rule

Developing Rule 609 began last fall when the COGCC worked with industry representatives and several local governments during stakeholders meetings to discuss changes.  In addition to the stakeholder meetings, the COGCC staff held pre-hearing conferences to gather additional input and comments from the industry and other parties.

Rule 609 requires that before any new oil or gas well is drilled, the operators must first collect baseline samples at two different groundwater sources within one-half mile of the well site.  Then, after drilling the well, the operator must take subsequent water samples to ensure no groundwater contamination occurred during drilling or after production.  The operator can pick the sample sites based on five criteria: (1) the type of water feature, (2) local topography and hydrogeology, (3) orientation of locations with respect to the well site, (4) multiple identified aquifers available, and (5) previously sampled domestic wells.

The baseline sampling must occur prior to the commencement of drilling.  In addition, Rule 609 also requires baseline water sampling for any facility installation, even if no drilling is planned.  For well re-stimulations, an operator must take new baseline water samples if more than twelve months passed since the first baseline sampling took place.

Rule 609 requires operators to take the first water sample twelve and eighteen months after well completion or facility installation.  The operator must then take the next sample between sixty and seventy-two months after the operator’s first sample after drilling.  The new rule may require operators to take additional samples if water quality changes during any subsequent sampling.  Finally, the COGCC Director may require further sampling in response to a complaint from water well owners.

All water quality data generated under the new and existing rules will be available to the public on the COGCC website.  The groundwater samples record: pH levels, total dissolved solids, presence of bacteria, total petroleum hydrocarbons, and hydrogen sulfide, as well as other data.  This publicly available data will inform oil and gas stakeholders, political officials, and concerned citizens about the groundwater quality near drilling operations.

In addition to monitoring oil and gas activities, the systematic groundwater testing required under Rule 609 should discover any existing contamination resulting from non-drilling activities, such as agricultural activity, septic system use, household chemical use and disposal, plumbing systems, or industrial activity.  Therefore, a benefit of this required groundwater sampling will identity contamination and mitigate damages because of early detection.

 

COGA’s Voluntary Program

While creating Rule 609, the COGCC staff also gained valuable guidance from examining the older Colorado Oil & Gas Association (“COGA”) Voluntary Baseline Groundwater Quality Sampling Program (“COGA program”).  The COGA implemented the nation’s first statewide voluntary groundwater sampling program and continues to supply the public with groundwater information by publishing data that shows the oil and gas industry’s commitment to protecting groundwater through testing and safe practices.

The main difference between COGA’s program and COGCC’s new rule is that the COGA program is voluntary, while COGCC Rule 609 is mandatory.  Although only voluntary, many operators have participated in COGA’s program in an effort to demonstrate that drilling operations do not compromise Colorado’s groundwater quality.  COGA’s program, like the COGCC’s, asks operators to take baseline samples before beginning any oil and gas operations.  In addition,  both programs require initial water samples from two existing groundwater features located within a half mile of the new drilling site or a new well on an existing well pad and subsequent samples after well completion.

 

Conclusion

Passing Rule 609 shows that Colorado is serious about protecting the state’s groundwater resources.  The new rule not only pleases environmental advocates focused on protecting our water, but Rule 609 also provides operators with the opportunity to showcase safe operating methods.  And if the collected data fails to convince the public of the operations’ safety, then operators have the chance to adjust their methods and remedy any problems at an early stage.

 


Sources: