EARTHWORKS

A case study in how industry influence squelches the science of gas drilling impacts

Judy Jordan's avatar
By Judy Jordan

February 9, 2012

Garfield County Oil and Gas Boom 2000-2009

In 2007, Garfield County was the most heavily drilled county in Colorado and was one of the most heavily drilled areas in the entire Rocky Mountain region.  With some 2000 wells permitted per year, by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the area was a flurry of heavy trucks, dust, and conflict. 

In addition to the usual beefs between surface owners and industry, which are proliferating throughout the shale plays today, Garfield County had seen one of the country’s first publicized cases of water contamination resulting from oil and gas activities. 

An EnCana crew noticed irregularities while completing a well south of Silt, Colorado, including a drop in the level of cement they had placed between the well casing and the borehole wall.  Intended to seal this annular space to keep gas from rising toward the surface, the cement drop meant that somewhere, several thousand feet below the surface a fracture was receiving cement, and possibly other fluids. 

Shortly thereafter, neighbors were shocked to observe the creek on their property bubbling.  Eventually they were able to convince the regulators to investigate and EnCana was fined. 

The penalty COGCC levied for the Schwartz well problems was nearly $400,000 and was the largest fine the agency had ever imposed. 

The Garfield Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) needed a staff member to focus exclusively on oil and gas, so they created a position and hired a mining geologist.  Disliking being in the middle and having no power, the incumbent left within two years for a higher paying job in industry.  The County tore through two other oil and gas staffers, each lasting only a matter of months.  I knew it would be stressful, but I took on the challenge in 2007.  The County liked the fact that I was trained in geology and law, and they thought my tenures in the public and nonprofit sectors indicated less likelihood that I would be tempted away by greener pastures in industry.    

Water Contaminated by Oil and Gas

Within my first week on the job, the Assistant County Manager took me to see the Divide Creek seep area, where the EnCana/Schwartz well problem had occurred.

COGCC had imposed a moratorium on drilling there, as the County oversaw a hydrogeologic investigation, paid for EnCana in lieu of the fine.  The Mamm Creek Hydrogeologic Study was in its second phase, and a consulting firm was arranging to sample over 60 domestic water wells.

I met with the project manager and COGCC, and accompanied the field crew on a sampling trip. This was familiar territory as I had started my career sampling wells for an environmental consulting firm and continued to oversee such studies as the head of Delaware’s Groundwater Quality program in the 1980s. 

The files I read seemed to suggest there had been some debates over the purpose of the Mamm Creek study, which was now carefully worded along the lines of seeking an understanding of the “conditions” there, yet not explicitly stating the obvious question:

Did EnCana cause contamination that had not been fully defined, and were oil and gas development practices likely to cause more contamination?

Clearly, we were walking a fine political line, trying to ameliorate the tensions between the industry and neighbors affected by their activities without alienating the industry. 

Inconvenient Findings

In the fall of 2007 the consultants issued a draft report on the Mamm Creek Phase II study.

The report not only lacked any conclusions about the role oil and gas development played in the appearance of methane in domestic wells, but it lacked a conclusion section altogether, which is a standard component of any scientific report. 

I wondered why the consultant would be so equivocal when it seemed to me that they had been paid to determine the cause of the contamination they had found. 

They did state that several water wells were contaminated-one so heavily that it presented an explosive hazard-and that about 100 gas wells had been improperly constructed, in contravention of the COGCC well construction regulations.  They said that the methane either came from the rocks underlying the aquifer through gas wells or natural migration, or that it occurred naturally in the aquifer itself. 

Concerned that the consultants might be pulling their punches, I spoke with the County Manager and County Attorney and we decided to hire another consultant to review the data, with a specific mandate to determine the cause of the methane contamination.       

The new consultant, Geoff Thyne, was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines.  A graduate student under his guidance took on the analysis as her master’s thesis, and she reviewed hundreds of sampling records.  She performed statistical analyses and concluded that the formation that the domestic water wells drew water from, did not show signs of contamination from natural gas activity before the rigs moved in. 

After the gas wells proliferated, not only did the instances of contamination with hydrocarbons appear, but their concentrations rose with the number of gas wells .

The reaction of the COGCC is a blog for another day. Suffice it to say that they conspired with the industry to try to discredit Dr. Thyne’s and Tamee Albrecht’s work. After all, a finding that oil and gas wells contaminated groundwater not only had serious implications for the industry, which by this time was feverishly working to increase its holdings in the Marcellus Shale, but it also implicated COGCC’s rules in the cause of contamination, which might make COGCC look bad too. 

A Third Phase to Get to the Bottom of the Problem

I thought further data might clear up whatever questions about the role of industry in the contamination remained.  So I designed a third phase to the Mamm Creek study. 

This time, we wouldn’t depend solely on geochemical data that the experts found arguable.  This time we would install monitoring wells specifically to help define the nature of the flow in the aquifer that domestic wells drew from. 

Not only would there be monitoring wells, but they would be nested pairs that could provide insight into the movement of the groundwater in three dimensions.  If groundwater was moving upward, then that would suggest that methane could also be migrating upward from the gas reservoir, and that the appearance of methane in the aquifer resulted from natural causes.  If the water was not moving upward, then it was likely that either methane was naturally occurring in the aquifer or that the gas wells were providing conduits for the migration up into the aquifer. 

The chemical data we would retrieve from the monitoring wells could help determine whether there was methane native to the aquifer, and if not, there would only be one remaining possibility: the gas wells, which we knew to be improperly constructed, were providing a pathway for the hydrocarbons to migrate up into the aquifer.

Changing Politics

The Board of County Commissioners (BOCC), including two pro-drilling Republicans and one Democrat, approved my budget request for Phase III.  The Democrat, Tresi Houpt, also sat on the COGCC and often argued in favor of measures presented to both commissions to protect human health and the environment. 

However, in November 2010, as we prepared to sample the new monitoring wells, Tresi was unseated by another pro-drilling Republican. 

In December 2010 the County Manager told me the County government would be reorganized and the Oil and Gas Department would be dissolved.  I lost my position as a department head and would now report to a person who acted as if directed to prioritize industry interests before the public interest.

The monitoring wells were sampled in January and the consultant called to tell me the lab results over the phone in the spring of 2011. Every single monitoring well contained thermogenic methane, the kind that is made through geologic processes and not by modern microorganisms.  More importantly, the majority of the wells contained methane homologs (like butane and ethane), which had been missing from the domestic well samples in Phase II. 

Industry representatives claimed the absence of those homologs, which were present in the actual gas samples from the gas wells, indicated that the methane didn’t come from the same formation as their gas, therefore, the gas wells weren’t responsible for the migration.   The homologs changed the geochemical picture. 

The consultant was still reviewing the piezometric (i.e., pressure) data from the wells to try to determine the groundwater flow direction.  Sensing that my days were numbered under the changed complexion of the BOCC and the reorganization, I asked the consultant to work quickly.  

I scheduled the consultant to report on the Phase III study at the June 2011 Energy Advisory Board meeting. The consultants asked me for another month to review data and develop their conclusions. That would have completed the study by July, or August at the latest.  The County fired me at the end of June.

Today -- a year after the first sampling of the County’s monitoring wells and fully six months after the consultant should have completed Phase III, the study has evaporated into thin air

Meanwhile, COGCC did their own study showing that gas wells have leaked into the aquifer.

Garfield County residents, and others, deserve an update on what happened with the approximately $300K that was spent on Phase III and how the BOCC seems to think it’s going to twist the facts this time to prevent the industry from leaving the area, due to the acquisition of potentially “hostile data.” Or will they just hide it like they did the health study? Either way, you have to ask yourself why.   

Now that I wrote a letter to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the BOCC has decided to spend another $90,000 to “continue studying.” But two rounds of data have already been collected and people deserve to know the results now -- it has already been a year since the wells were drilled and sampled. 

What are they waiting for? Remember how the industry managed to delay the results of the Colorado School of Public Health’s study until the BOCC decided it was too thick to continue?  Same tactic here? One has to wonder.

A novelist in her spare time, Judy Jordan has worked in the environmental field for over 25 years, first as a hydrogeologist managing the State of Delaware’s Groundwater Quality program.  Since then she has managed contaminant investigations for DuPont and served as a Superfund lawyer for the Pennsylvania DEP.  She was the Oil and Gas Liaison for Garfield County, Colorado during its boom in the 2000s.


For more information:

Videos on the impacts of drilling on Garfield County:

Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission

Mamm Creek Study and related documents

Tagged with: science, mamm creek, judy jordan, industry pressure, garfield county, colorado

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