Chapter 3: “It is what it is.”
Other Weld County landowners agree that oil and gas development has benefited Weld County.
Terry Walter, for example, lives on a piece of property on a former Union Pacific railroad section much like Jerke’s, and he also earns 2.5 percent of the royalties from the two wells there. The royalty payments are not massive, he said, but they pay a few bills each month.
Walter is the owner of Walter Angus cattle ranch and Walter Farms. He leases roughly 10,000 acres of property from Weld County landowners in Platteville, Fort Lupton and Hudson for farming and cattle ranching. Those landowners earn part of the profit from Walter’s ranching operations. Because most of them own the mineral rights beneath their land, they also earn significant royalties from the 800 active oil and gas wells scattered across those 10,000 acres.
“Most of the landowners I lease from own the ground,” Walter said. “They still have the mineral rights, so it’s a wonderful thing for them. They’re able to get so much more income from oil revenue than I could ever pay them in a cropshare, lease or just plain rent.”
Other landowners who only own the surface rights are compensated for inconveniences and damages caused by the drilling and fracking processes, but that’s not the case for Walter and his employees.
“As the leaser or renter, I’m almost never compensated for the inconvenience,” Walter said. “Really it’s just the cost of doing business, to be able to farm the ground or rent a pasture.”
He doesn’t worry about the proximity of those 800 wells to the 6,200 head of cattle on his ranchland or the acres of wheat, alfalfa and corn he produces.
“I feel fracking’s very safe,” Walter said. “I’ve lived here my entire life, and we probably got our first Amaco wells back in 1972. To my knowledge, we’ve never had an accident, fracking-wise.”
That is to say, there’s never been an accident on the property Walter owns.
Walter provides some of his employees with housing on the land he leases. In 2011, there was a methane leak at the home of Javier Rodriguez, one of the Walter Angus ranch hands. Walter’s herd manager, Mike Lee, said Rodriguez was able to set his tap and well water on fire.
Methane is not toxic, but it’s highly flammable, and because it’s colorless and odorless, it can go undetected until it ignites.
“It’s not a constant flow,” Lee said. “Just because you turn on your tap, just because you have a crack in your pipe and you have methane gas leaching into your waterline, it doesn’t just come with the water. So you might be doing your dishes and if you’re a smoker, there might be a burst of methane you don’t know about because it doesn’t smell.”
Methane is the primary component in natural gas, and it contributes to atmospheric damage at more than 20 times the rate of carbon dioxide. According the EPA, oil and gas operations account for almost 40 percent of all U.S. methane emissions, making the industry the single largest methane source in the U.S.
But with naturally occurring methane pockets in the earth beneath Weld County, it’s not uncommon for methane to leak into water supplies, and it isn’t necessarily associated hydraulic fracturing.
When someone living near an oil and gas well reports methane in his or her water, well operators are required by the COGCC to investigate and determine whether the gas is biogenic methane, which naturally collects near underground drinking water aquifers less than a mile beneath the surface, or thermogenic methane, which is found much deeper in shale plays and can be released by the fracturing process. Thermogenic methane can leak into drinking water from faulty gas pipelines and wellbore casings, and it often contains heavier and more dangerous hydrocarbons such as propane, butane, pentane and hexanes. Both forms of methane are highly flammable and can trigger an explosion when the gas collects in an enclosed space, and because it is colorless and odorless, it often goes undetected until it ignites.
Encana, the company operating the well near Rodriguez’ house, investigated and found that Rodriguez’ water did, in fact, contain thermogenic methane from a cracked natural gas pipeline.
“They ended up putting Javier in a motel for a week so they could fix the pipe and get a cistern put in,” Lee said.
The cistern, which is still in place, filters the methane out of Rodriguez’s water.
Walter also recalled another fracking-related accident during the 2013 flood that swept the Front Range and the plains.
“When we had our great flood in September, a handful of oil battery tanks tipped over right on the river, but that’s just all natural crude oil,” Walter said. “It’s organic, you know.”
Lee pointed out that “organic” doesn’t mean much as far as safety is concerned.
“Oil’s organic, but so is cow manure,” Lee said, “and just like that, if you have too much of it in one area, it’s going to kill everything, and it can contaminate water if it gets into it.”
It can, and it has. A study the COGCC conducted of its own records in 2012 showed that 40 percent of the oil spills in Weld County between 2008 and 2012 contaminated groundwater sources. Since 2004, 1,652 spills have been reported by Weld County operators. Oil is indeed organic—meaning carbon-based—just like benzene, a carcinogenic component of crude oil, as well as xylene, ethylbenzene and toluene, which can all cause chronic respiratory and gastrointestinal problems. These chemicals are known as BTEX compounds and are volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
During the September 2013 flooding, 14 “notable releases” of oil and gas production materials across Colorado totaling 1,042 barrels (42,764 gallons) were reported to the COGCC. Spilled materials included crude oil, natural gas liquids (NGLs) and produced water. Noble reported four flood-related spills in which a total of 212 barrels (8,903 gallons) of oil and 30 barrels (1,259 gallons) of produced water spilled. After the flood, Anadarko reported five notable spills releasing a total 25,073 gallons of oil, and one of which spilled 13,500 gallons into floodwaters adjacent to some of the property Walter rents near Platteville.
“The gold of the future isn’t oil and gas or gold or silver—it’s water. They need a lot of water to frack with, and they’re not going to get the oil out without fracking. It’s that simple.” – Mike Lee, Walter Angus ranch herdsman
“We were very fortunate,” Walter said. “The big damage started from Platteville on, and we’re just south of Platteville. We have a farm right on the river. We had a little bit of leakage right out on the river, and we had water standing in our cornfields, but it all started from Platteville and when you get up from Gilcrest in the south, that’s really where the damage was.”
Lee told a different story. He and the other herdsmen helped rescue more than 80 cows that had been trapped in the floodwaters. Driving the cattle two miles around the flooded pastures took around 6 hours.
“Those animals were standing in water for a day up past their hocks, and the first thing they did when they got out of that truck was fight to get to the stock tanks,” Lee said. “They weren’t drinking that crap—the raw sewage, the decaying animal carcasses, diesel fuel, stuff from battery tanks that got uprooted.”
The floodwaters were so contaminated that they couldn’t be used to irrigate crops.
“The gold of the future isn’t oil and gas or gold or silver—it’s water,” Lee said. “They need a lot of water to frack with, and they’re not going to get the oil out without fracking. It’s that simple.”
The COGCC projects that demand for water used for hydraulic fracturing will grow 35 percent by 2015, reaching 6.1 billion gallons per year. Although this amount is significant, it constitutes only .08 percent of all the water used in the state. By contrast, a total of 86 percent of Colorado’s water is used for agriculture.
Lee and Rodriguez work on Walter Angus’ main pasturelands in south-central Weld County, herding cattle and managing crop production. Lee lives in a trailer home on the pasturelands with his 11-year-old son, Colton. In mid-April, four completed horizontal well pads were visible from his front door, and at a fifth site, a triple rig rose far above the cottonwood treetops, drilling yet another well.
Lee said the oil and gas operations pose dozens of challenges every day.
For instance, fences around the well pads and pipelines have transformed the vast pastures into a maze.
“Used to be, it took me an hour to get from one end to the other on horseback,” Lee said. “Now it takes two, three hours—more if I’m driving cattle.”
The truck traffic to and from the pads poses the most immediate problem.
“Before there was any oil and gas here, you didn’t drive through the pasture because driving through would destroy the grass,” Lee said. “Everything was done on horseback to save the grazing land. Now we’ve got oil roads and pipelines and pads, and it makes it challenging.”
The native sandgrass that covers the pastures is hardy, but difficult to reclaim once it’s gone.[aesop_image img=”http://breakinggroundweld.jessfarris.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/IMG_3854.jpg” imgwidth=”400px” align=”right” offset=”-150px” captionposition=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Sandgrass on Walter Angus grazing lands is still sparse
two years after reclamation.”]
An average of 2.25 wells are drilled per well pad, and the average well pad strips about 5.56 acres of grass. For Walter’s rental properties, that means oil and gas operations have stripped around 2,400 acres of land, or almost 25 percent of the farm and grazing land. Those figures do not include acres of land disturbed to make way for access roads and pipelines, or land leveled by trucks crossing the grazing lands.
A 2013 Boulder County study found that it takes 1,400 one-way truck trips to transport the 2 to 5 million gallons of water it requires to frack just one well. These trucks transport more than 23,000 gallons across Colorado’s oil fields every minute. An earlier study from Rio Blanco County estimates that 798 roundtrips were required for the well drilling and fracking processes, as well as an additional 1,066 roundtrips for maintenance over the well’s lifetime. The Rio Blanco study predicted a 700 percent increase in oil and gas-related traffic by 2022.
The COGCC requires oil and gas operators to reclaim any land disturbed during oil and gas operations, but Lee pointed out several locations that were “reclaimed” up to two years ago and still only showed sparse patches of grass.
“Realistically, for it to come back, you’re looking at 15 or 20 years because of the type of grass it is,” Lee said. “It has decent nutrition when we have help from above with rain, but if you overuse it, it’s gone.”
Reclamation efforts involve spreading layers of crimped hay and grass seed. Landowners can choose their own blend of grass seeds, but sometimes weed seeds end up in the mix, Lee said. Even more threatening, some reclamation efforts spread cheatgrass, an invasive species that is highly susceptible to wildfires.
The truck traffic also has more deadly consequences than damaged grazing land. Trucks driving through the pastures at night hit and kill two to three calves per year and usually injure several cows. To prevent trucks from hitting and killing the cattle, with black coats that make them difficult to see in the dark, Lee posted 15 mile-per-hour speed limit signs, but even as he pointed out one of the signs, a water tanker roared by at a much higher speed, kicking up a cloud of dust. Three different oil and gas companies—Kerr-McGee, Noble and Encana—and all of their individual subcontractors work on the well sites in the pastures, so it’s nearly impossible to prove which one is at fault when an animal is killed.
“Unless you’re there to see it, there’s so much traffic here, who in the hell knows who did it?” Lee said.[aesop_image img=”http://breakinggroundweld.jessfarris.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/IMG_3210_2.jpg” imgwidth=”250px” align=”left” offset=”-150px” captionposition=”bottom-left” caption=”Mike Lee examines the location where a
$6,000 bull was caught in a defective
cattle guard.” lightbox=”off”]
As a result, Walter Angus has only been compensated for the loss of one animal that died as a result of oil and gas operations. The operators are required to install fences and cattle guards between the animals and the well sites, but one of the companies had placed an inadequate cattle guard on an access road that crossed two pastures, prompting the cattle to try to cross the guard.
“I had a high-dollar embryo bull that was a yearling—never been with women—get caught in that cattle guard and break his back leg,” Lee said. “We couldn’t even collect semen on him because with a broken back leg, he couldn’t mount to collect.”
With the $6,000 bull reduced to “a few hamburgers,” Lee was determined to hold the culprit accountable. He documented the incident, photographed the bull and the cattle guard, and called representatives at the companies. Predictably, none of the companies claimed the cattle guard as its own.
To complicate matters, well sites, mineral rights and pipelines change hands on what seems like a weekly basis, Lee said.
“What might’ve been Anadarko’s a year ago might be Encana’s now,” he said. “They switch things up more often than I change my underwear.”
Because all three companies’ trucks used the cattle guard, Lee suggested they divide the cost three ways. The companies refused.
“So I called up my three reps from the companies and I said, ‘Well, then it belongs to nobody, and I’m coming in with a front-end loader tomorrow at 8 o’clock, and I’m jerking it,’” he said. “‘I’m putting in a gate, and all your pumpers and well checkers and pipeline people can open and shut gates. All. Day. Long.’”
A few hours later, the companies agreed to divide the cost of the slain bull.
Whenever Lee encounters a problem he can’t resolve on his own, it can take days or even weeks to get help.
“Change does not happen fast,” Lee said. “It’s got to go through the chain of command. Unfortunately, that’s just how this world is now. You know darn well the first person you’re talking to is going to be the lowest man on the totem pole, and it’s going to take another four or five phone calls before you get a guy on the phone who’s got enough power to halt or rectify a certain situation.”
The key, he said, is knowing how to deal with the contractors to get results.
“A little politicking goes a long way, especially when you’re dealing with corporate America,” Lee said. “You’re dang sure going to catch a hell of a lot more flies with sugar than if you go in and start trying to snap their heads off. Not to say there aren’t days when I’d like to go postal on some of them.”
The problems Lee encounters when dealing with the oil and gas contractors are minor to the industry, but significant to anyone who earns a living from agriculture.
In 2011, Kerr-McGee began installing a well pad that blocked a section of the dirt road Lee and Walter’s other employees used to bring farm equipment to the wheat fields. When construction began, Lee warned the operators that he would need to drive an 18-foot-wide swather through that area in six months to harvest the wheat. With wetlands on either side, the road was the only way to get the swather to the crops. The company’s representatives assured Lee that the operation would be out of the way in time.
But when the time came to harvest the wheat, the pad site remained in the swather’s path. Lee suggested that the operators temporarily remove the fence around the well pad so that they could drive the farm equipment through the site, but the company refused due to safety concerns. After Lee demanded compensation for any crop losses, the company put in a supposedly temporary access road through the wheat fields, clearing a path for oil and gas trucks and farm equipment, but leveling an area that would have yielded about 320 bushels of wheat.
“I told them they’d pay every year this road was in for every bushel we were losing due to the acreage of damages,” Lee said. “This is a Right to Farm state, and they can’t take away our rights.”
The company agreed to pay for loss, but three years later, the “temporary” access road still remains.
“This is a Right to Farm state, and they can’t take away our rights.” – Mike Lee, Walter Angus ranch herdsman
Lee said only one thing can halt oil and gas operations: raptors.
“Nesting eagles, nesting hawks, burrowing owls, horned owls—that’ll shut them down quicker than anything,” he said. “If there’s a bald eagle nest, they cannot be working within a mile radius of that nest. If there’s a hawk’s nest in the way of a pipeline and she’s sitting on a clutch, they’re shut down until those babies are hatched and they leave the nest.”
The COGCC strictly regulates oil and gas activity in wildlife habitats. In 2013, Kerr-McGee was digging a trench across one of the pastures to lay a pipeline when the operator encountered a small burrowing owl in the pipeline’s path. Instead of trenching, the company had to redirect the pipeline, boring 800 feet into the ground below the owl’s burrow so that it would not disturb the bird. Another time, a great horned owl nesting in the cottonwood tree beside Lee’s house prevented Noble from trenching through the roots, which would have likely killed the tree.
As frustrating as his encounters with the oil and gas contractors often are, Lee doesn’t blame the workers.
“I understand they’re just doing what they’re being told to do, so I really can’t get too upset at them,” he said. “They’re not the decision-makers. Unfortunately, the decision-makers are sitting in an office somewhere in Denver or Houston and they’re looking at topographical maps, and they’ve never driven through or walked the terrain. That’s big business for you. It is what it is.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the situation is that Lee has no real power over the oil and gas operators or contractors. He earns nothing from the operations on the land he manages, and because most of the landowners own the mineral rights, oil and gas development there is far more profitable for them than agricultural operations.
“If our landlord suddenly expected to get the same kind of income that he’s accustomed to from the oil field off of agriculture, we would lose the lease and be out of business,” Lee said. “You walk that line trying to keep your landlord happy, because he makes more money off [oil and gas royalties] in a month than we can give him in five years. But we’re also trying to keep what’s best for the land so we can utilize it. It’s definitely a double-edged sword, a catch 22—whatever bumper sticker you want to use.”
Lee feels as though he should have more power to prevent the oil and gas companies from interfering with his livelihood.
“It’d be whole a different story if we owned the surface rights and the mineral rights,” he said. “That’s a whole different breed of cat. Then you can stomach the inconveniences because at least you’re profiting from it.”
“Sometimes it’s hard to see the positives,” Lee said, “but there are positives.”
For instance, the booming oil and gas business brings workers who stay in Weld County towns and support local businesses.
“A lot of people are being employed by it, the oil field pays well, and the subcontractors are staying at the motels and spending their money here,” Lee said. “So the wealth gets spread around in a good way that helps everybody.”
Also, the ranch benefits from some of the infrastructure required to maintain the wells. If operators are digging near a fence in the pasture, Lee or Walter can often convince the company to pay for a new fence, which can be a large expense for the ranch.
“So we’re not taking it in the shorts all the time,” Lee said. “We do get some benefits. I’d say we’re more or less taking it in the shorts overall, but you just take the small victories when you can. It is what it is.”
In spite of the obstacles they face, Walter and Lee both said they prefer that oil and gas is produced in Colorado instead of overseas because domestically-produced gas keeps energy bills lower and isn’t subject to political upheaval abroad.
“My biggest expense is diesel fuel to be able to make food for people to eat, and so I am really into a reliable source of petroleum that is a stable price,” Walter said. “We can budget a $4 fuel; what kills me is if it would jump a dollar because of some kind of insurrection going on over in the Middle East or wherever.”
Lee also anticipates that the oil and gas activity in the pastures will die down eventually.
“Someday they’ll have all that infrastructure in and it’ll be quieter like it used to be,” Lee said. “Change is always happening. Once they’re done here, they’ll find [oil and gas] somewhere else and they’ll be on top of it like flies to a cow patty.”