Breaking Ground: Hydraulic Fracturing in Weld County, Colorado
With more than 21,000 active oil and gas wells, Weld County is the most heavily-drilled county in the state of Colorado. At the heart of Weld County’s oil and gas industry lies the process of hydraulic fracturing, a technique for extracting oil and natural gas from oil and gas-rich rock layers deep beneath the earth’s surface. Hydraulic fracturing in the Wattenberg field of the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin has prompted a multibillion-dollar oil and gas production boom centered in Weld County. With 75 percent of the county’s 2.5 million acres dedicated to farming and ranching, Weld is the state’s primary county for agricultural production and is typically among the top 10 counties in the nation for agricultural production. The oil and gas industry’s rapid expansion in the county has not only altered the land, but the lives of the farmers, ranchers and residents who dwell and work on it. Note: Some names have been changed for privacy reasons.
Chapter 1: Fractured Silence
In late March 2014, a representative from Noble Energy, Inc., contacted Ed Graham to inform him that the company would soon begin drilling an oil and gas well approximately 650 feet from his home just east of Gilcrest, Colo.
“They basically gave us two choices,” Graham said. “We could continue living in our house, but we’d have to endure noise higher than the industrial-level regulations, or we could move out temporarily.”
Graham, who works as the human resources director at the High Plains Library District in Greeley and has lived in his Weld County home for almost 10 years, was accustomed to nearby oil and gas activity.
More than 40 active oil and gas wells are currently located within a one-mile radius of Graham’s two-acre property, including four within 1,000 feet of the house. About a half-mile to the south, the DCP Midstream Mewbourn facility processes 125 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.
“I had never had somebody just run over me like this. I’m an American, I have property, I have rights. And here comes corporate America saying, ‘No, we’re just going to do what we want.’ I had lived a sheltered life until that moment.” – Ed Graham, Weld County resident
However, no well operator had ever asked Graham to make a choice like this before. The company offered to pay to house his family at a Holiday Inn Express hotel in Greeley for the three or four weeks it would take to drill and hydraulically fracture the well.
With two children, ages 3 and 5, and two dogs, a three-week hotel stay was impractical for Graham and his family. His wife, who works from home for a financial security software development firm, couldn’t effectively do her job from a hotel room. The family elected to stay in their home.
Noble proceeded with the drilling process, which the company expected to exceed the 65-decibel maximum noise level requirement imposed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for drilling operations. When the constant noise and vibration proved unbearable on the ground floor, Graham and his family retreated downstairs to sleep and work in their basement.
“I had never had somebody just run over me like this,” Graham said. “I’m an American, I have property, I have rights. And here comes corporate America saying, ‘No, we’re just going to do what we want.’ I had lived a sheltered life until that moment.”
After Graham filed a noise complaint with the COGCC, he said it took several days for an inspector to arrive. When Mike Leonard, one of Colorado’s four field inspection supervisors, finally did arrive, a reading he took 25 feet from Graham’s front door registered the noise from the well site at 75 decibels, which is equivalent to the sound level 50 feet from a busy highway.
Oil and gas operators are subject to a minimum $1,000 fine for every day that the noise level exceeds COGCC regulations.
“We are still going to pursue a fine for the situation since [Noble] did not mitigate the issue in the time frame given,” Leonard wrote in an email to Graham on April 3. “We took the readings last night to confirm this. Assessment of a fine is not a simple process. I will be issuing a Notice of Alleged Violation with an Administrative Order of Consent (this is the fine notification). At that point it becomes complicated because their lawyers start talking to our lawyers.”
Leonard indicated that a noise mitigation firm had helped Noble select and install equipment to reduce the volume of the drill. Graham said the noise was still unbearable and relentless.
Aside from the noise of the drill itself, convoys of trucks carrying equipment and supplies for the process began roaring by beginning at 5:00 a.m. every day. The Grahams could often smell exhaust from the drill and the trucks while sitting in their home, and they occasionally felt their house shaking. After several sleepless nights, Graham said he came to work looking so haggard that his boss recommended he see a doctor.
“You can see clouds of exhaust and pollution floating around out here and you can smell it too.” – Ed Graham, Weld County resident
A few days after the drilling process began, Graham’s neighbor called in the middle of the night, furious about the noise level.
“He was ranting about how he could hear the drill and he was going to go out there and whoop some ass,” Graham said.
The neighbor, who has a history of violent tendencies, farms the land beside Graham’s house and lives in a trailer home across the street. After the neighbor had calmed down, Graham connected him with his contacts at Noble. The company paid for the neighbor to stay in a Greeley hotel, but he moved back after one week because he was not reimbursed for the fuel required to get to his farm every day.
After the drilling stage was complete, Noble once again offered to pay for the Grahams’ hotel room before the hydraulic fracturing stage of the well began. Unwilling to uproot their children and careers for another few weeks, the Grahams refused the offer.
When Graham and his wife first moved to Weld County to escape the noise and pollution in Denver, they didn’t think that oil and gas development near their home would disrupt their lives as it has.
“When I moved here, I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s fine, drill in my backyard,’” Graham said. “I don’t want to be one of those guys. Well, now they’ve done my backyard, my side yard, my other side yard and now my front yard, and I say, ‘Just keep it out of my house,’ and they won’t even keep it out of my house.”
The Grahams have also encountered problems with the other oil and gas facilities and operations in their area.
The DCP Mewbourn natural gas processing plant less than a mile to the south of his property and the Kerr McGee gathering facility visible from his front door are both common causes for concern. Both facilities not only produce noise that exceeds regulations, but they also emit a yellowish haze that makes it difficult to breathe. Smokestacks at the Mewbourn plant often emit flames for several hours at a time.
“You can see clouds of exhaust and pollution floating around out here and you can smell it too,” Graham said.
After working in their yard one evening in April, Graham and his wife suffered from respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. He said he had a chronic sore throat and something that felt like an ear infection.
“I have a sore throat, headaches, hypertension, my eyes burn, difficulty sleeping, dizziness, and nausea,” Graham said. “My daughter has a rash and open sores. It can’t be a coincidence based on the amount of oil and gas activity around here.”
Dr. Kevin Warren, the family’s primary care physician, and Dr. Bob Peters, a pediatrician who determined that Graham’s daughter’s sudden rash is eczema, recommended that Graham and his family see a toxicologist to determine whether their symptoms are related to the oil and gas development near their home. In May, Graham made an appointment with toxicologists at the University of Colorado Denver regarding exposure to industrial toxins.
Graham’s case is also being reviewed by a lawyer who helped a Texas family successfully sue Aruba Petroleum, Inc., for $2.9 million for personal injury and property damages in April. The family experienced health problems that were determined to be caused by oil and gas activity near their home. It was the first suit to successfully claim damages for health problems due to nearby hydraulic fracturing.
In May, the hydraulic fracturing process on the well closest to Graham’s house was halted due to the complaints he filed with the COGCC. Later that month, Noble contacted Graham asking him to sign a confidentiality agreement to continue discussing logistics, mitigation, and timing for further activity on the well.