Oil and gas drilling in Colorado

Finding common ground on drilling, starting with how to spell the F word

by Allen Best

The Denver Post this morning announced that the four largest drilling companies working in Colorado’s Denver-Julesberg Basin have invested $4 billion in 2013, with plans for even more investment in 2014. It’s a bet that the Niobrara and other  formations underlying the basin will produce oil and gas for a good number of years.

Also in the news of late have been the attempts in four communities along the northern Front Range, from Broomfield to Fort Collins, to ban drilling.

In a lecture on Dec. 10 sponsored by the Center of the American West, oil-and-gas attorney Howard Boigon called this “the latest reel in a long-running movie.”

Howard Boigon

Howard Boigon

This latest reel can be distilled into one word: fracking. Short for hydraulic fracturing, it’s a technical process, just one component in the broader activity of drilling. But the word is now fraught with additional meanings, depending upon who is using it.

The rift has become so deep that, like gang colors, sides can be differentiated by how they spell the word. To drillers, the abbreviated word is spelled “frac.” To most everybody else, including those more neutral about the practice, it is “frack.”

If we can’t agree how to spell the word, there’s even deeper division as to what it refers. Until a few years ago, it was clinically called a “downhole completion procedure,” one done only after a drilling rig had been laid down. So far, as Boigon noted, there are no confirmed cases of fracking fluids sullying potable drinking water — this after a million fracks during the last 60 years.

In the language of some, thought, fracking involves much more—and is much more sinister.

“In its most pointed form,” he said, “it is used to describe in a pejorative way the injection of known carcinogens underground which can percolate into groundwater, with the resulting production of large quantities of toxic fluids which are often spilled on the surface before having to be disposed of in underground wells that cause earthquakes.”

His customary bow tie affixed to his neck, Boigon admitted that his telling of the story is probably suspect to the ears of some, given his professional work. He has been involved in oil and gas affairs since the early 1970s in Colorado, currently with the firm Hogan Lovels. Although his clients have included landowners and others, he admitted to strong ties with the oil and gas industry, further compromising his perspective to the ears of some.

“My clients want to Frack You.  How can you possibly believe anything I would say?” he said, obviously, I thought, tongue in cheek.

Perspective of drillers

Given the extent of state and federal regulation, “industry has tended to dismiss the controversy over fracking as a manufactured one, trumped up by industry opponents as an excuse to ban oil and gas development,” he said. “While there is undoubtedly some truth to that, it does not adequately account for very real concerns felt by many people regarding the impacts of this industrial activity in their neighborhoods and near their drinking water.”

He also observed that operators believe the controversy will disappear if only the public is given facts. But perception of risk is shaped by more than mere facts. While he did not draw the line of what constitutes legitimate concerns, he admitted he want not want his child attending a school across the street from a drilling rig, as was the flashpoint in Erie reported by 5280 Magazine last year.

Boigon was at his best in dissecting the oil and gas industry. It is, he said, “an industry that in many ways is bolted to the past…A stubborn reliance on property rights as the sacred foundation of the industry underlies attitudes and actions. Oil and gas is found where it is found, therefore we must go and get it wherever it is, and our right to do is inalienable and must be protected…. Independence and self-reliance, the willingness to take risk, an aversion to interference by government or neighbor—these are the attributes of the oilman…Oilmen are competitive and notoriously self-confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance and dismissiveness, believing they know best how to do their business and that there is nothing they can’t do. “

His acknowledgement of the technological prowess of drillers also bears citation:

“The fact is that the oil and gas industry is one of the most innovative on the planet, and our civilization has benefited greatly from this. Think about the basic technology of the business, drilling a hole several inches in diameter miles below the surface to targets imperfectly identified, through virtually impenetrable rock under conditions of high heat and pressure, under surface conditions ranging from extreme cold to thousands of feet of water to dense jungle to challenging topography to fragile environments to urban surroundings, in political and regulatory contexts all over the world ranging from highly developed to primitive. The imperatives of meeting these challenges have generated extraordinary creativity and innovation, from deepwater platforms to multi-well pads to horizontal drilling to multi-stage hydraulic fracturing to pitless drilling, to water recycling, to fracking without fresh water, to name just a few. Technology is constantly evolving. You give them a challenge, and they figure out a way to meet it.”

Local bans on fracking

The major issue in Colorado now is whether local communities can ban drilling through bans on fracking. Given the pervasiveness of fracking, this amounts to the same thing.

Boigon pointed to landmark cases in 1992, one in Greeley and the other in La Plata County, as the framework by which current cases will be decided. “A local community could regulate land use matters in connection with oil and gas development but could not ban the activity,” he explained.

Asked whether activists had produced the changes in governance in Colorado that makes Colorado the national leader in drilling regulation, Boigon hesitated not a second: “Absolutely,” he said.

But he also said that the current debates “are being fueled by outside groups having a national agenda.” Some of that opposition is driven by a concern that development of “massive domestic fossil fuel resources, including cleaner burning of natural gas, will delay or even prevent our transition to a carbon-free economy.”

The way forward? If you’ve ever driven by a drilling operation, you will understand why neighbors would object. They can be stinky, noisy and, while some operators now put high curtains around the drill site, they’re not to be confused with pastoral meadows. They’re a tough match in a fast-urbanizing region.

So many holes in the ground

The scale of this drilling is absolutely breathtaking. The Denver Post story pointed out that with 20,000 wells already drilling in the Wattenberg Field between Denver and Greeley, drillers must be exceedingly careful to avoid snaking a new well bore into an existing well. And after a century of drilling, the pace is picking up.

Politically, it will be necessary to draw lines, perhaps more restrictive than those now imposed.

I have made the argument that it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more drilling rigs in our midst, to retain an element of reality in our lives. Those drilling rigs are our rigs, after all. Our giant houses, 12 mph pickups, weekend flights to Las Vegas – we’re all part of this story. It’s not them vs. us. It’s us.

Does this drilling give us the illusion of sustainability? The late Randy Udall probed this in a presentation at the Colorado Renewable Energy Society in March. We’ve chained ourselves to the drilling rig, he said, and thrown away the key.

Sally Benson, a professor at Stanford Univeristy, said much the same thing at the Vail Global Energy Forum last spring, if in a less catchy way. The natural gas bounty, she said, is a blessing — but it’s a gift that should not be wasted. “That would be a terrible, terrible mistake,” she said.  It’s a bridge, not the future, and we need to continue work on developing renewables.

Last summer, I wrote extensively about oil-and-gas drilling in Colorado as it relates to water. That piece for Headwaters can be found at: http://www.yourwatercolorado.org/cfwe-education/headwaters-magazine/energy 





About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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