MIDDLE GROUND

MIDDLE GROUND

by Sandra Hume

Providing the public with information, not opinions, CSU’s Colorado Water Watch bridges the gap between the oil and gas industry and a public concerned about hydraulic fracturing’s effect on community water sources.

In the controversial and often contentious conversation surrounding hydraulic fracturing in Northern Colorado, both sides regard one another — and the regulators in the middle — with suspicion and mistrust. Is “fracking” the unsafe, air and water-polluting environmental menace its detractors insist it is? Or does the practice have very little impact on the environment, particularly in light of today’s stringent regulations, as the oil and gas industry claims?

From his position in the engineering department at Colorado State University, Ken Carlson watched the schism build and worsen. Mixed messages were clouding the facts — about contamination, about new rules and regulations, even conflicting studies.

“The public is confused,” he says.

Eventually it became apparent to him that something was needed to bridge communication between the two sides of the debate. Something unbiased and neutral, down the middle. Like a university.

As arguments surged, the professor of civil and environmental engineering decided that what people needed was data. What if the public and the industry had a way of determining actual contamination using straight forward data that couldn’t be contested?

CSU was in the ideal position to provide this data as an “honest broker” between the industry and concerned citizens, Carlson thought. Further, as a land-grant institution with agricultural roots, it had an obligation to do so. And as head of CSU’s Center for Energy Water Sustainability, Carlson knew a thing or two about water.

So people are concerned about whether fracking is contaminating the water? OK, he said. Then let’s monitor it.

And he founded Colorado Water Watch.

FRACKING AND CONTAMINATION

Fracking, the process of drilling deep wells into underground rock layers and injecting a cocktail of chemicals and water to break up the rock, enables the extraction of oil and gas. While the practice of drilling oil and gas wells is decades old, improved technology has caused fracking activity to flourish exponentially in recent years. As a result, environmental and citizen groups worried about air and water contamination have begun to fight back against the industry.

“No one would say that oil and gas has never contaminated a water well,” Carlson says.

Indeed, anyone checking data collected by the regulatory Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will find evidence of contamination. Methane is the biggie. A greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas, methane is naturally occurring in groundwater. However, when oil and gas operations unwittingly force excess methane to migrate into drinking water sources — either in a gas or a dissolved state — it’s hazardous.

But with tens of thousands of both active and inactive oil and gas wells across the state what’s often unclear is how the contamination happened. There are several possible culprits, Carlson explains.

One is surface activity — say a truck spill — which would affect shallow water wells about 50 feet below the surface. Far more serious is the contamination of “confined aquifers,” deep underground water sources that lie below a layer of rock.

Methane can leak into an aquifer from a well when the bonding between the casing around the underground pipe and the rock the well bores through fails. Or if the casing itself is breached, dangerous dissolved solids can make their way into the groundwater.

Casing can vary tremendously in quality depending on when the well was drilled. Newer, stringent guidelines enacted in 2009 require properly constructed wells to be reinforced with steel and cement casing between them and any nearby aquifers to greatly reduce the likelihood of a breach or bonding failure. But wells from the early years of oil and gas drilling weren’t closely regulated; some didn’t even have complete casing all the way through the aquifer, according to Carlson. So even when contamination is detected it can be difficult to source.

“Drilling’s been going on for more than 40 years, and we have all these legacy wells,” Carlson says. “Personally I’d much rather have a new hydraulically fractured lateral well that was drilled yesterday than one that was drilled 30 years ago because practices are so much better.”

Further confusing the matter is that methane can be biogenic, or naturally occurring, such as a long-recognized collection underground in Weld County. In high concentrations it’s not harmless, but it’s not the same as the thermogenic methane that can be directly traced to fracking.

To the public, though, that’s all nuance — contamination is contamination. Carlson felt that citizens needed some visible, reliable data to be able to make informed opinions.

THE WATER WATCH

Since May 2014, the COGCC requires water within a half mile of oil and gas wells to be tested both before and after the site is drilled. Carlson’s proposal would expand on this existing system, monitoring sites over time and simplifying the data for public accessibility.

He turned to former Governor Bill Ritter, founder and director of CSU’s Center for the New Energy Economy, for support. (It was under Ritter’s administration that the oil and gas regulations were strengthened in 2009.) Ritter was immediately on board and set out to secure funding for the project. In the end, the Colorado Department of Natural Resources financed the Water Watch, with additional funding provided by CSU, oil and gas company Noble Energy — whose wells would be the ones monitored — and a U.S. Department of Energy grant. (Ritter tapped representatives from each of these stakeholders—including himself and Carlson—to serve on the project’s steering committee, as well as folks from conservation and industry groups.)

After six months of preliminary testing the Colorado Water Watch, the first university- and industry-involved public water-monitoring system of its kind anywhere, was unveiled of officially in September 2014.

HOW IT WORKS

The Denver-Julesburg basin extends over 6,700 square miles in the eastern half of Colorado and is home to heavy oil-and-gas drilling activity. As part of the Water Watch, five wells were drilled underground in the Wattenberg field portion of the DJ basin in Weld County alongside wells leased by Noble Energy — “right next to where the tanks are, in the middle of the well field,” according to Carlson.

An additional well was drilled at CSU’s Agricultural Research Development & Education Center, just across Interstate 25 from the Anheuser-Busch brewery and at least three miles from any oil and gas activity, as a control site.

Researchers at CSU tested the water from each well site for parameters that could indicate the presence of methane or dissolved solids as a baseline. Since then, using software with real-time anomaly-detection algorithms, each well has been monitored constantly for any changes in those parameters. That data is fed to the research team at CSU. Any changes detected would trigger a researcher to go to the well and obtain a sample of the water, which would then be sent to an EPA-certified lab for further testing.

One thing Carlson is clear about is what the Water Watch is not: It’s not a test for specific contaminants. “We’re just testing for changes,” he explains. “Unless you hear it on the news, the assumption is that the water quality is good. The baseline is now.”

RESULTS

For almost two years, the news was good. Changes were detected in the water only once — and that was at the control site (and suspected to be agriculture-related). Then in November 2015 came the tenth and final testing well of the first phase. In baseline measurements, analysts immediately identified excess methane. “It was sort of a shock, really,” Carlson told the Greeley Tribune; he’d expected the tests from this well to come back the same way the other baseline tests had. The water, which was used for farm irrigation, didn’t contain carcinogenic dissolved solids, but the methane levels were high enough to have explosive potential.

In a sense, this is the Water Watch’s first real test, because now begins the work of zeroing in on the source of contamination by testing nearby water wells and investigating the integrity of surrounding oil and gas wells. It’s not a short or easy process, but Noble Energy, the COGCC, and the university are all working together — which is exactly what the Water Watch was designed to facilitate.

Does Carlson mind being in the middle of such a contentious debate? Actually, he enjoys it, appreciating that he’s working on something that matters in the real world.

“You know you’re doing something important,” he says. “That’s why the grad students who work with me get so excited. They actually get to interact with companies and government agencies. It’s not some obscure lab study that might or might not ever see the light of day.”

“It’s been great exposure for us,” concurs Dhanasekar, who obtained his master’s in civil engineering under Carlson’s advisement in 2013. The project is unique in that it’s “bridging the gap between community and industry and the government. It’s bringing more clarity to research.”

NEXT UP

What comes next remains to be seen. The Water Watch steering committee convenes once each quarter to direct the project progress. Phase 1, development of the system; and Phase 2, proof of concept, are complete. As the Water Watch heads into Phase 3, expansion, it now includes 10 monitoring stations, nine on Noble Energy-leased property.

“The question now isn’t whether we’ll expand it, but how much and where? We feel the most appropriate places to monitor are areas with the highest density of oil and gas activity overlaid with the most groundwater use,” Carlson says, adding that the Watch has already used GIS mapping to identify such “hotspots.” “There are some areas of Weld County where there are 50 to 60 wells per square mile. People are relying on the groundwater there.”

In the long term, there are a few best-possible outcomes of expansion. The first is that the industry realizes the benefit of real-time monitoring on a regular basis and that integrating it in order to build their operations in an environmentally sound way will add to the companies’ — here’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot — social license to operate.

Carlson also hopes that cities or counties might want to become of officially involved, establishing agreements with industry players to monitor groundwater, or working it into their best practices. Further, if using an early-warning system such as this helps determine that an industry player is not operating in an environmentally sound way, isn’t it all the better that we learn that quickly to halt further impact to an aquifer?

“Universities used to be very afraid to be funded by the oil and gas industry because that would mean their results were biased. My feeling is that the industry should be funding these studies because they’re benefiting from them”

For Carlson’s part, he’s been surprised — in a good way — by the number of people who support monitoring air and water for the long term.

“It comes back to trust,” he says. “When companies are against monitoring, you can’t help thinking, ‘Why won’t you do it?’”

Looking at the industry’s future over the next decade and what’s receiving the most interest, he sees real-time monitoring in the mix.

Both Ritter and Carlson credit Noble Energy for being the “guinea pig,” so to speak.

“I’ve been really heartened by Noble Energy’s willingness to learn what they can about their own operations and any impact they might have on aquifers,” says Ritter. “Certainly the results have been positive from their perspective, but their initial willingness to go into this — they are to be credited for that.”

It’s a potentially precarious relationship, but to Carlson’s mind, it’s the only way it will work.

“Universities used to be very afraid to be funded by the oil and gas industry, because that would mean their results were biased,” he says. “My feeling is that the industry should be funding these studies because they’re benefiting from them. Noble told us early on that if we were seen as shills for them, we would have no value to them. The responsible operators — and more and more are falling into that category — see it that way. They don’t want a university to greenwash something that’s obviously bad. The public isn’t as stupid as people think.”

For now, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force is charged with keeping the two sides of the debate talking.

“It’s sort of like a parent saying to two children fighting, ‘I’m closing the door, figure this out.’ I think that is what is going to have to work, personally,” Carlson says. He mentions Brighton, Adams County, even Timnath as places where people have managed to come together and talk. This gives him hope.

“If people can’t come together, we might end up with a ballot initiative that could be shooting ourselves in the foot — on both sides.”

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