In the midst of a discussion about increasing production of natural gas in Western Colorado this year, the energy industry is grappling with national reports about contamination from fluids disposed of following hydraulic fracturing — a process also called fracking.
The contaminants, which sometimes include chemicals from the fracking process as well as salts and radioactive substances brought from underground, were discovered in river water in Pennsylvania. (See related story on page 4).
As companies working in Western Colorado push ahead with development, they try to explain that possible threats to public health are exaggerated and there’s no proof of a link between fracking fluids and sickness.
“The industry has done an outstanding job of utilizing new technologies and new field infrastructures to recycle major portions of their water,” said Carter Mathies, spokesman for Clover Energy Services, a company that pursues oil and gas opportunities in the West.
“We clean it up or store it,” said Susan Alvillar, communications specialist for Williams Production, one of the largest natural gas companies operating in the Piceance Basin in the region. “We have two water recycling facilities.”
Unlike the disposal process in Pennsylvania, used fracking fluids in Colorado are disposed of by injecting them deep underground through wells or pumping them into evaporative ponds near drilling sites. Fluids in Pennsylvania are disposed of in wastewater treatment plants, which discharge treated water into rivers. Such plants are reportedly not equipped to fully treat fracking fluids.
Energy companies and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission say energy companies in Colorado don’t send fracking fluids to wastewater treatment facilities.
As she said during tours of drilling rigs in the basin, Alvillar reiterated that Williams Production works to dispose of fracking fluids without sending residue to the Colorado River. The company also participates in the growing trend to recycle fluids for future fracking activity. “Each drop we use is used up to six times until it’s gone,” she said.
Such efficient use of water used in energy production can help companies concentrate on their primary jobs, she added.
“It’s much easier to produce gas than to manage the water.”
Fracking has been used for more than 60 years to release natural gas and oil from underground rock formations. The cracks through which fracking fluids are pumped can be just a few inches wide, but extend varying distances outward from a well.
The release of gas causes concerns about potential contamination of water — either surface water or groundwater. Such concerns have led to legal requirements that companies follow guidelines for disposing of fracking fluids after the fluids are pumped back out of the ground.
“We work pretty closely with the state to provide everything they need,” said Marc Borella, an engineer for Halliburton who spoke at a recent energy briefing in Grand Junction.
Energy companies also work to develop so-called green chemicals to further reduce the potential for contamination, Borella said.
But no matter how many precautions companies might take, they still have to punch a hole in the ground to extract gas and oil, he said. “Formations targeted for fracking are generally thousands of feet underground,” he said.
Such realities lead Congress to occasionally discuss the potential for tighter regulation of fracking fluids and processes.
As of press time, Colorado lawmakers were working on proposals to require companies to divulge the contents of fracking fluids. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency was developing a plan to study the effects of fracking on drinking water.