Boulder County is bracing for a frack job, and not just in Longmont and Erie.
County officials confirm that oil and gas companies, primarily Encana, are preparing to drill on several sites in the county during 2012, including seven open space properties involving 48 wells. All are expected to be subject to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” That is the extraction method of choice in the Wattenberg Field, a large bed of natural gas that extends into Boulder County, primarily east of Highway 287 between Longmont and Broomfield.
This time, county officials hope the impacts won’t be as severe as in 2006 and 2007, when drilling operations rendered some county-owned agricultural land virtually unusable.
Erie residents, following an outcry by Longmont residents and a recent Longmont City Council moratorium on new drilling applications, have voiced concerns about hydraulic fracturing near homes and schools due to worries about health threats. Fracking, a long-used approach employing water, sand and chemicals to release natural gas and oil, has recently gained notoriety in part because of concerns that it could cause illness through groundwater contamination or other means.
Boulder County officials say that, aside from the health worries about fracking, the drilling operations themselves can be harmful, especially on agricultural lands.
In 2006 and 2007, the impacts of drilling rendered some open space lands unusable for farming. Rob Alexander, director of agricultural resources for Boulder County Open Space, says there have been numerous negative effects from drilling on open space. Specifically, he cites the Oxford Farms Open Space used by farmer Craig Sterkel, located at the southeast corner of Oxford Road and 115th Street, south of Longmont, which he says was damaged in early 2007 when Encana attempted to move a drilling rig off of open space land after a snowstorm.
The truck hauling the rig got stuck in the access road that they built to the site, Alexander says, so the company brought in a bulldozer to pull the truck. Then the bulldozer got stuck, so a large track-hoe pulled the bulldozer, but, unable to use the access road, they pulled it out across the farm field, slogging through mud for about 1,200 feet, leaving tracks up to four feet deep and 60 feet wide, he says.
“I felt that, for the type of conditions they were in, they shouldn’t have been out there doing what they were doing, but I guess when you’ve got to get a well completed, it doesn’t matter what the conditions are,” Sterkel says.
The operation destroyed the topsoil and the overall soil structure, according to Alexander, and while Encana attempted to mitigate the damage initially, the company quit after a time because it became too expensive.
“They assured us they would eventually address the damaged land, but never did,” he told Boulder Weekly. “Today, after five years, the disturbed areas are still very unproductive.”
He says the crop yields on the disturbed land are so poor that the costs to farm the area exceed the value of the crop harvested.
“The production on it is way below what the rest of the field does,” Sterkel says, adding that even some of the three- to six-inch rocks in the gravel Encana used to build the access road are still in the field.
Alexander says there are numerous other examples of negative impacts of drilling, primarily by Encana. Once, a pipeline that was supposed to be reclaimed and revegetated became “just a weedy mess,” he says. “Individually, they’re not huge, but collectively, we’ve got a bunch of them.”
More may be in store. Alexander and Matt Adeletti, senior paralegal specialist for Boulder County Open Space, say they have been notified that Encana and, to a lesser extent, Noble Energy, plan to drill extensively on county open space in 2012. (Oil companies must give at least 30 days’ notice to the property owner when they plan to drill.)
“It’s a pretty good flurry of activity,” Alexander says. “It’s not typical.”
“This is an above-average amount,” Adeletti adds. “This would be more than we’ve seen in any past year.”
He explains, however, that sometimes, the oil companies’ predictions don’t come true.
“Every year, they tell me they’re going to drill this many wells,” Adeletti says.
The companies, locations, timeline and number of wells are:
• Encana – Alcorn Open Space, winter 2012, five wells
• Noble — Autrey Open Space, date unknown, one well
• Noble — Mountain View Egg Farm Open Space, one well.
• Encana — Doniphan Open Space, third quarter of 2012, six wells
• Encana — Energy Resources Land Technology (ERLT) Open Space, third or fourth quarter of 2012, 16 wells
• Encana — Haley Open Space, third quarter 2012, six wells
• Encana — Ross Open Space, Winter 2011-2012, three wells
• Encana — Vicklund Open Space, date unknown, five wells
• Encana — Wambsganss Open Space, five wells, third quarter of 2012 When asked to respond to county staff ’s concerns and the 2007 incident, Encana spokesperson Wendy Wiedenbeck said, “We will not address issues or concerns that Boulder County Open Space staff may have with Encana through the media.”
But when asked about complaints regarding Encana’s clean-up efforts in November, she said, “Clearly, we have some work to do in Boulder County. We’ve had a lot of success with our reclamations in Boulder County and in other municipalities, but we don’t always have success.
“We have a lot of leaseholders who grow crops on their land and have great success when our work is done,” she said. “Are there isolated incidents where maybe a certain location hasn’t had success? Again, you’re going to have locations like that across the field.”