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Colorado: Shell gets OK for fracking in Spanish Peaks

July 4, 2011 by Bob Berwyn

State approves 14,000-foot-deep fracking operation without public hearing

SUMMIT COUNTY — Shell Oil & Gas has been cleared to drill deep into a unique geological formation near the Spanish Peaks, in southern Colorado, to explore new natural gas resources.

Huerfano County planning and elected officials gave the exploratory fracking project a conditional green light last week, to the dismay of many local residents who are clamoring for more upfront research and better safeguards against environmental impacts.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last month denied a citizen request for a public hearing because the request didn’t come from a local government entry.

Shell is responsible for this month’s spill of at least 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River, upstream of Billings, Montana.

“To my knowledge, this is the first fracking operation on the Front Range of Colorado,” said Sandy Borthick, member of a citizens group which presented a request for “seven safeguards” to the Huerfano planning and zoning commission.

The approval process was fraught with controversy, as the planning and zoning commission refused to let members of the public speak at preliminary meetings on the approval. Scott King, chair of the commission, threatened to forcibly remove citizens from meetings, according to Ceal Smith, of the San Luis Valley Renewable Communities Alliance.

When audience members protested this action, King responded with, “So sue us,” according to Smith.

The group, Citizens for Huerfano County, requested a public hearing with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but was turned down because the request did not come from a local government body.

The primary concern of La Veta residents and other citizens is the potential for ground water pollution and dangerous air emissions.

“The goal of the Sierra Club RMC, is to ensure that Colorado water and air resources are clean, public health, environment, and wildlife is protected, and that these are not endangered or impacted by irresponsible oil and gas drilling practices,” said Gopa Ross, chair of the Sierra Club’s Rocky Mountain Chapter oil and gas committee.

Ross has first-hand experience with oil and gas exploration. A water well on her horse ranch in Las Animas County was contaminated with methane gas, arsenic and fluoride by gas drilling in 2006 and impacted again in 2009 during drilling operations. The water well never recovered.

Borthick, a retired editor and writer from the telecommunications industry, has been researching legal remedies, and has come up empty-handed so far.

“It looks like we will have to appeal to Shell directly because our county commissioners and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are satisfied — they think the existing rules are adequate. They aren’t, but we can’t fix that right now, so my immediate goal is to get Shell to sit down with us and see if we can’t get make a deal or get some kind of memorandum of understanding.”

Among the Huerfanos’ concerns is the fact that Shell has only limited geophysical survey data, and that the company is not aware of the area’s unique geology. They want Shell to do a more comprehensive survey to be sure that drilling so deep in the vicinity of the Great Dikes of the Spanish Peaks doesn’t present unmanageable risks.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a method of extracting oil and gas found deep in the Earth trapped in pockets of stone. Shell oil leased land two miles west of La Veta to drill a test/exploratory well, the deepest thus far in the area at 14,550 feet.

Shell filed for approval with the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission in late April to drill a hydraulically freaked, 14,000-foot deep well about 2.5 miles southwest of La Veta. The well site is on private land, J. J. Klikus owns both the mineral and surface rights.

By COGCC rules, the local government designee, County Administrator John Galusha, should have been notified sometime soon thereafter. He did not notify the public.

In a written timeline of the approval process, Borthick said, “We are fairly certain the commissioners violated the Sunshine Law in May and it seems likely they met with Shell representatives as well. Their comments at the June 1 meeting indicated great enthusiasm for the project. No public input was allowed at that meeting.”

The oil and gas commission approved the application June 9, brushing aside citizen concerns and ignoring what the citizens group calls “obvious discrepancies and deficiencies on the applications,” including a lack of notice to adjacent landowners, a lack of evaluation of health and environmental effects and a lack of notice to or input from the public.

The seven safeguards requested by Citizens for Huerfano County:

1. A substantial bond or escrow account, to be set aside by Shell before they drill, specifically for remediation, reclamation and to cover expected costs to the La Veta Fire Protection District and cost to cure expected damages to citizen health. Our conservative estimate of the amount of this bond/escrow, just for health damages (assumes no need for additional  remediation and reclamation beyond what Shell already plans to address in its plans, and no need to reimburse LFPD for costs and materials to fight fires caused by Shell’s activities or personnel) is $6,117,000.00 (6117 people in the county, with 10 percent affected, at $10,000 per person).

2. Two surveys, each of 10 square miles around proposed well site before Shell drills:  A) Surface geochemical (“sniffer”) survey to identify and document existing gas seeps B) Surface 3D seismic reflection survey to evaluate the presence and orientation of natural vertical fractures that could flow fluids (gases, drilling fluids, frac’ing fluids), so that drilling and production operations can avoid natural hazards.

3. Full disclosure of frac and drilling chemicals, by CAS number, to the County and the public at least 60 days  before each drill or frac using such chemicals.  Samples taken of drilling and frac’ing fluids before,  during, and after drilling/frac’ing operations, to verify that what Shell thought they were putting in the ground was really what was going into the ground.

4. Water quality: Baseline samples to be taken at least 60 days prior to activity at the well site, for 5 miles in all directions,  of  all domestic and livestock water wells, of the intake to the town of La Veta waterworks, and of all other creeks and surface run-off areas. Monitoring samples from the same sources to be taken, analyzed and reported to the County Health Department (accessible to the public) once a week during well site preparation, drilling, frac’ing,  production and reclamation. If any drilling, frac’ing, or gas production chemicals are detected in domestic wells and/or the La Veta Town waterworks intake, then Shell will cease and desist all operations until the situation is fixed.  No produced water is to be placed on any county paved or dirt roads, or otherwise discharged on the surface.

5. Air quality: Baseline samples to be taken at least 60 days prior to any well site activity on a still day at the well site location, and at the western edge of La Veta (e.g. Ryus and Aspen) and at 3 other points TBD. Monitoring samples from the same sources to be taken once every two weeks during drilling, frac’ing, gas production and reclamation. Whenever readings at any of the five locations exceed allowable limits, as evidenced by an audible alarm in La Veta and at the site, then Shell will  immediately shut-down of all operations at the site, including deliveries and haulage, until the situation is fixed.  All sources of gaseous effluent at the site must be either  (1) fitted with adequate filtering or vapor recovery units, or (2) enclosed. In either case, all gaseous effluent from all sources and enclosures must be filtered and cleaned of toxic chemicals and particulate before being discharged into the air. Noise abatement equipment on all portable equipment and vehicles and noise abatement insulation of all enclosures.

6. A pitless, closed loop drilling system will be used with injection materials mixed in containers and flow back and other produced material stored in containers and trucked off to licensed landfill or suitable disposal site.

7. No Flaring and adequate emergency response: There will be no flaring and Shell will have onsite both fire and hazmat personnel to deal with any fires or other accidents.

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