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Recycling in the pits for energy firm

Jason Rauen envisions a day when the plastic that once lined natural gas drilling and production pits in Western Colorado comes back to his company in a different form — perhaps as pallets or even new liners.

An environmental specialist with Williams Production, Rauen oversees a program that recycles pit liners into other plastic products as well as fuel.

The effort keeps the large liners out of landfills, reduces traffic from trucks hauling liners and benefits the environment in the process, Rauen said.

Since the pit liner recycling program started this year, other energy companies operating in the Piceance Basin have shown an interest in participating.

“We pioneer our own innovations, both with technology and environmental stewardship,” said Susan Alvillar, a community affairs representative for Williams Production.

The company recently received an operator award from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for the pit liner recycling program that began in January.

Rauen said liners from 35 pits closed in 2009 have been recycled and he expects liners from another 30 pits likely to be closed this year to also be recycled.

Ongoing recycling will depend on natural gas exploration and production activity and to what extent energy companies continue to use pits as part of those activities, he added.

The pits, which typically measure 90 feet wide and 120 to 180 feet long, store drilling cuttings as well as the liquids that are often a byproduct of natural gas production.

Pits usually are lined with a layer of felt and two more layers of plastic, Rauen said. Some pits are double lined.

When nearby drilling or production activity ceases and the pits no longer are needed, they’re closed and the land reclaimed.

Pit liners previously were buried in place. But new state rules that took effect in 2009 prohibits that practice and requires disposal at offsite locations, such as landfills. Some landfills, including the landfill in Garfield County, subsequently stopped accepting liners because of concerns over about the materials with which the liners come into contact and the amount of space they occupy.

Under the recycling program, liners are cleaned and compressed into 1,000-pound bales that resemble a cube with 4-foot sides, Rauen said. The bales are bound and transported to one of two locations. A facility on the Front Range recycles the liners into new plastic products. A facility in Eastern Utah burns the liners as fuel. Plastic contains more energy than coal, he added.

The transportation and recycling process is carefully documented to create a record from the use of the liners to their destruction, Rauen said.

Williams realizes a savings or breaks even in comparing the costs of recycling liners or disposing of them in landfills, he said.

But at the same time, the company demonstrates environmental stewardship, he added.

He estimated the recycling program so far has kept about 500 cubic yards of pit liners out of landfills — enough to fill more than 60 dump trucks hauling 8 cubic yards each. “That is huge.”  Said Alvillar: “It’s a win-win for the environment and Williams. We’ve created that option.”

Williams employees have stepped up efforts to recycle other materials, too, Alvillar said. That includes everything from scrap aluminum and steel pipes to office products.

Rauen expects the recycling process to some day come full circle when Williams uses plastic products made from old pit liners, whether that’s plastic pallets or maybe even new pit liners.

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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