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, rancher and residents who dwell and work on it.
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Chapter 1: Fractured Silence
In late March 2014, a representative from Noble Energy, Inc., contacted Eric Ewing 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,” Ewing 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.”
Ewing, 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 Ewing’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.” – Eric Ewing, Weld County resident
However, no well operator had ever asked Ewing 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 not practical for Ewing 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.
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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, Ewing and his family retreated downstairs to sleep and work in their basement.
“I had never had somebody just run over me like this,” Ewing 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 Ewing 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 Ewing’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 Ewing 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. Ewing said he couldn’t tell the difference.
After the drilling stage was complete, Noble once again offered to pay for the Ewings’ hotel room before the hydraulic fracturing stage of the well began. Unwilling to uproot their children and careers for another few weeks, the Ewings refused the offer.
When Ewing 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,’” Ewing 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.”
Ewing said he’s refusing payment because he doesn’t want to accept payment from an industry that is reducing his quality of life.
“My wife and I moved out of Denver to live in the country,” Ewing said. “Part of the reason we chose to do that was to get away from the noise because I’m really sensitive to loud noises.”
During the drilling and fracturing processes, Ewing said the noise was 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 Ewings could often smell diesel exhaust from the drill and the trucks while sitting in their home. After several sleepless nights, Ewing 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.” – Eric Ewing, Weld County resident
A few days after the drilling process began, Ewing’s neighbor, Levi Berig, 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,” Ewing said.
Berig, who is currently facing third-degree assault charges for an unrelated incident, farms the land beside Ewing’s house and lives in a trailer home across the street. After Berig had calmed down, Ewing connected him with his contacts at Noble. The company paid for Berig 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.
The Ewings 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,” Ewing said.
After working in their yard one evening in April, Ewing 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,” Ewing 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. Kyle B. Waugh, the family’s primary care physician, and Dr. Robert L. Pederson, a pediatrician who determined that Ewing’s daughter’s sudden rash is eczema, recommended that Ewing and his family see a toxicologist to determine whether their symptoms are related to the oil and gas development near their home. In May, Ewing made an appointment with toxicologists at the University of Colorado Denver regarding exposure to industrial toxins.
Ewing’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 Ewing’s house were halted due to the complaints he filed with the COGCC. Later that month, Noble contacted Ewing asking him to sign a confidentiality agreement to continue discussing logistics, mitigation, and timing for further activity on the well.
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Chapter 2: The Right to Frack
Oil and gas development often collides with landowners, farmers and ranchers throughout Weld County, where oil and gas companies operate more than 21,000 active wells—about 40 percent of all active wells in Colorado. The county’s high concentration of wells is primarily a result of its location on the Wattenberg field of the Denver-Julesburg (DJ) Basin, an oil and gas-rich area that covers 70,000 square miles from Denver to Julesburg and includes portions of western Kansas, western Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming. The Wattenberg field covers about 2,000 miles and 81 municipalities.
Oil and gas operators tap fossil fuel deposits in layers of Cretaceous rock that lie beneath the Wattenberg field via the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” After operators drill a hole into the oil and gas-rich rock layers—often a mile or deeper—they line the hole with a steel and cement casing, which is then perforated. A solution of processed water is pumped into the well at extremely high pressures, pushing the solution through the perforated casing and cracking the surrounding rock. Oil and gas is released from these cracks and pumped back up to the surface with the processed water, which is then separated. The fracturing process—pumping the water in, cracking the rock and bringing it back to the surface—takes three to 10 days to complete. After fracturing is complete, wells can continue to produce oil and gas for years, or even decades.
Hydraulic fracturing in the Wattenberg field has prompted a multibillion-dollar oil boom. In 2013, Weld County oil and gas operations produced a total of 52.1 million barrels of oil—81 percent of state totals. The county’s oil and gas industry also produced 303.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas and natural gas liquids (NGLs), which accounts for 18 percent of state totals.
Of all the oil and gas wells in Weld County, 84 percent are operated by four companies: Noble Energy, Inc., Anadarko Petroleum Corporation (and Anadarko-owned Kerr-McGee Corporation), Encana Corporation and PDC (Petroleum Development Corporation) Energy. About 30 active wells are added to the COGCC’s database each week.
These four operators spent nearly $4 billion on Weld County operations in 2013. In late 2013, Noble, Anadarko, Encana and PDC identified 15,000 new potential drilling locations for 2014, most of which are in the Wattenberg field. Noble, by far the top operator in Weld County with more than 8,400 active wells—including the one beside Ewing’s home—plans to spend about $2 billion of its $4.8 billion total projected investments for 2014 on DJ Basin operations. Anadarko, which operates more than 5,500 wells in Weld, plans to spend $1.5 billion in 2014.
In 2013, the oil and gas industry accounted for $3.9 billion—about 55 percent—of Weld County’s total assessed value, according to the Weld County Assessor’s Office. That revenue also covers just over half of all property taxes.
“In other counties, all of their taxpayers bear the entire brunt of their tax load, and here, the oil and gas companies pay more than half of our property taxes,” said Bill Jerke, who was one of five Weld County commissioners from 2001 to 2008.
Jerke and his family have lived on their 150-acre Weld County farm for 59 years, growing primarily corn and alfalfa for cattle and horse feed. There are currently 10 active oil and gas wells on Jerke’s farm, nine of which are operated by Noble. The “odd duckling,” as Jerke called the remaining well, is operated by PDC Energy.
Like many residents whose lands are peppered with wells, Jerke receives 2.5 percent of the royalties from the wells on his property.
Those oil and gas royalties accounted for a quarter of the total income from his lands in 2013, with the remaining three-quarters from agriculture.
“That competing land use is at play here, but because most farmers will own some piece of the mineral estate… it ends up being beneficial to most farmers at some level… Nothing shows how much you really care as much as a check does.” – Bill Jerke, former Weld County commissioner and farmer
By contrast, many landowners receive nothing—or very little—when wells are drilled and fracked near their properties. For people like Eric Ewing and his family, surface rights agreements result in insignificant payments.
“Although I do get compensated for a well that is behind my house, it’s like a penny a day or so,” Ewing said. “But we’re not cashing the checks anymore; we’re just saying we’re not interested.”
Even with the 2.5 percent royalty agreement, Jerke’s income from oil and gas is marginal compared to that of landowners who own the rights to the minerals beneath their property. Typically, mineral rights owners receive a minimum of 12.5 percent in royalties from the wells on their properties, but some receive as much as 20 percent.
“If I had owned the mineral rights, I would’ve received five times as much as I did, which means that oil and gas would have superseded our crop production,” Jerke said.
Jerke discovered that he only owned the surface rights to his property when he was approached by Union Pacific about 30 years ago. The company informed him that it owned the mineral rights to his property and that they intended to drill oil and gas wells there, offering a surface agreement that would provide him with that 2.5 percent interest in the wealth of those wells.
“I was nasty, I was belligerent, and I was uninterested in having wells foisted upon me,” Jerke said.
But Union Pacific made it clear that Jerke did not have a choice in the matter. The company had acquired the mineral rights to the property in the 1860s during Westward Expansion, when the U.S. government incentivized railroad companies to head west by giving them vast land holdings along the rail line. Over time, Union Pacific sold the lands to settlers but retained the mineral rights. Thus, if the company wanted to drill wells on Jerke’s farm, it could do so with or without his permission.
“They very bluntly told me that if I didn’t like them coming in with oil wells on our place, that I may wind up losing that gratis—that offer of getting 2.5 percent,” Jerke said. “It didn’t take long for me to figure out that 2.5 percent was better than nothing, and if they had the mineral rights—which they did—then I’d better be happy to take it.”
The mineral rights are now owned by Anadarko, which acquired them when it merged with Union Pacific in 2000. As a result of that merger, Anadarko owns about 7.5 million mineral acres across Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.
Jerke said he’s only had one problem with the wells on his property. In the summer of 2012, a center-pivot sprinkler caught on the top of an oil tank as it moved across Jerke’s fields. It kept moving, bending the metal and causing $10,000 worth of damage to the sprinkler. Fortunately, Jerke’s insurance covered most of the cost to repair the sprinkler, and representatives from PDC Energy, the company operating the well site, arrived quickly and determined that the oil tank had not been damaged.
“Everything worked out really nicely, and that is really a testament to how well the farmers and the oil companies work together now,” Jerke said.
Despite his initial resistance to oil and gas development on his property, Jerke has become an active proponent of the industry’s growth. He is the executive director of Fuel Colorado, a 501(c)(4) formed by county leaders and Noble Energy in 2012 to promote the advancement of oil and gas, agriculture, gravel and water projects.
Fuel’s efforts are largely geared toward persuading the public of the necessity of various natural resource development projects and reducing any potential damages from those projects. Through the organization, Jerke leads presentations pushing legislation that advances industry interests. For example, Jerke said, he might speak to county residents who raise concerns about the odor and flies from a dairy, the appearance of a gravel pit, or the presence of oil wells near their homes.
“Those things are necessary for our way of life, so we need to find ways of doing them that mitigate the damages,” Jerke said. “We feel that with a better educated public, people understand that there’s a good reason for these things, that they produce the roads we drive on, the buildings we live and work in; they produce the food we eat; they keep us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It’s all really important essentials that Fuel is actively promoting.”
Any damages or problems farmers face when oil and gas companies develop on their lands, Jerke said, are mitigated by the money the landowners receive from mineral rights and surface development agreements.
“That competing land use is at play here, but because most farmers will own some piece of the mineral estate, even if it’s the 2.5 percent that Anadarko gives, it ends up being beneficial to most farmers at some level,” he said, “and it either becomes our number one or number two source of income—number two typically only to livestock production. Nothing shows how much you really care as much as a check does.”
The oil and gas royalties provide landowners with a stable source of income as long as the wells are producing. Agriculture, on the other hand, is an unpredictable business. In August 2013, a 10-minute hailstorm cost Jerke $50,000 worth of crops.
Of the $4 billion in oil and gas sales from Weld County in 2013, about $500 million—or 20 percent—went to mineral royalties, and that amount is expected to grow in 2014. However, much of this money went, not to landowners, but to the county itself.
In the early 20th century, homesteaders settled across Weld County, establishing large dryland farms. Unable to pay property taxes after the onset of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, many of those settlers lost their farms—tens of thousands of acres that were then acquired by the county. When the climate and the economy stabilized, the county sold off the farmland, but retained the mineral rights. The county currently owns the rights to about 40,000 mineral acres.
Encouraging the oil and gas industry to tap those resources has resulted in vast development on farms across Weld County, as well as an additional, non-tax income source for the county.
“Agriculture and oil and gas are largely in this thing together,” Jerke said. “We make our livings from the land and what’s beneath the land. We need what they produce to keep our homes warm and keep our tractors moving, and they need us to feed them. It’s a good partnership.”
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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 rents roughly 10,000 acres of property from Weld County landowners in Platteville, Fort Lupton and Hudson for farming and cattle ranching. There are more than 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.
Encana, the company operating the well near Rodriguez’ house, investigated and found that Rodriguez’ water did, in fact, contain thermogenic methane from a cracked 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.”
[aesop_image img=”http://breakinggroundweld.jessfarris.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/IMG_3868.jpg” imgwidth=”400px” align=”right” offset=”-150px” lightbox=”off” caption=”Oily residue found in standing water on a Weld County well pad”]
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” (more than one 42-gallon barrel) 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 heifers 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 disturbed 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 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 heifers. To prevent trucks from hitting and killing the cattle, whose black coats 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 faster 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 $6,000 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 a $6,000 investment 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. For instance, 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.
Lee 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 some somewhere else and they’ll be on top of it like flies to a cow patty.”
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Chapter 4: Determining the Impacts
A 2012 study conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health in 2012 found that people living within a half-mile of oil and gas wells were at a greater risk for chronic health problems due to air pollution from fracturing and well completion activities. The study examined air quality near oil and gas operations in Garfield County, which has the second-highest number of oil and gas wells in Colorado—in excess of 10,500.
Researchers found 45 chemicals that could negatively affect human health in the air samples, including BTEX compounds and methylene chloride, which had not previously been disclosed as a component of or emission from drilling operations. The levels of these chemicals did not exceed safety standards, but were found in high enough concentrations that an area with more dense drilling operations—such as Weld County—might exceed such standards. Researchers also raised the question of whether the current air quality standards are strict enough to mitigate the potential health effects of these compounds.
“That study was based on voter complaints that people had, so that was based on real people who had called and reported to the COGCC that they were smelling odors coming off a well pad during well completion,” said Lisa McKenzie an associate researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study, “and they lived about a half a mile from the well pads, so for that data they’re smelling odors, and they may have some exposure.”
Industry professionals and supporters criticized the study because the researchers did not have full access to the pad site, so the air samples were collected from a nearby location.
A follow-up, statewide study published in 2014 indicated that women who live within 10 miles of oil and gas wells—particularly areas with high well density—were 30 percent more likely to have children born with certain congenital heart defects than those who did not live near wells. The study examined babies born between 1996 and 2009 across the Colorado.
“From the first study, we saw that one of the non-cancer potential health effects for that chronic exposure were developmental effects and we also saw that concentrations of benzene, toluenes and xylenes were higher in the air samples collected closest to the well pads,” McKenzie said. “Those three chemicals are known to cause birth defects and mutate cells, so we then decided that we could look and see if we could see increases in these birth defects.”
“We looked at congenital heart defects as a whole, so that’s where we saw a 30 percent higher increase in congenital heart defects in the highest exposed area compared to women with no wells around them,” she said. “Then we looked at specific congenital heart defects and we saw that 3 or 4 of them were also elevated in that highest-exposed group.”
Oil and gas proponents and state officials, including Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk, criticized that study as well, saying it did not analyze the possibility of other contributing factors and that it was biased in favor of environmental activists. But McKenzie said both environmental advocates and oil and gas advocates have capitalized on the research.
“I feel that there are all sorts of sides to this issue, and I feel that every side has exploited our research to their advantage,” McKenzie said. “I don’t believe that environmentalists have exploited it any more than the industry has.”
McKenzie’s study on birth effects contributed to what Ewing called a “panic attack” when he learned about it.
“My kids were conceived in this house, and within 10 miles of my house is—I don’t know, I would guess 5,000 wells,” Ewing said. “I’m thinking, hopefully my kids are okay.”
Ewing has submitted multiple complaints and requests to the COGCC asking for an air quality emissions test, but no tests have been conducted thus far. He emails COGCC inspectors videos of emissions and loud noises from the plants whenever the levels become unbearable—which often occurs on a daily basis.
In addition, oil and gas operations surround the library where he works. Mineral Resources, Inc., plans to drill wells near the charter elementary school Frontier Academy, located behind Ewing’s office. One of those wells will be drilled 478 feet from the school’s playground.
Ewing said he feels betrayed by regulators and by the oil and gas industry.
“I’m a registered Republican, I own a diesel pickup and I’m from rural Colorado,” Ewing said. “I think I fit most of those molds. Before all this, I didn’t like treehuggers, and I didn’t like Boulder and all that kind of stuff. But living here and being exposed to this, and seeing that stuff coming out of those smokestacks changed my mind.”
Ewing’s neighbors who receive the royalties from the wells on their properties disagree, and urge Ewing to “stop stirring the hornet’s nest,” as he said.
“I guess they think I’m going to ruin it for them, but that’s not what I’m about,” Ewing said. “I just didn’t want the drill to be in my front yard. It just needed to comply with the laws—that’s all I’m about. I’m not trying to end oil and gas development.”
“But I’m getting there,” he added. “If you’re going to do it, it’s got to be done right. You can’t just come in and eliminate people’s rights in order to do it.”
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Chapter 5: The Conversation
Ewing isn’t the first person to move to Weld County to enjoy the rural atmosphere, only to feel that the oil and gas industry was reducing his quality of life.
Shane Davis moved to the Weld County town of Firestone, Colo., in 2009. Davis, a former Colorado park ranger with a fondness for the outdoors, left the 17 windows on the south side of his home open every night to let in the cool night air.
“But every single night, anywhere from 11:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m., this giant wall of chemicals would come in,” Davis said, “and if I couldn’t get all of those windows closed in time, I would have to turn on all the fans in the house or drive somewhere for a few hours just to get the chemicals out.”
Soon Davis began experiencing symptoms similar to Ewing’s.
“I had never had any of these problems before, but all of a sudden I started experiencing migraines, a year-long nosebleed, GI problems, headaches, burning eyes, burning throat,” he said. “That’s what alarmed me. I’d wake up at 3am with these insane headaches.”
Davis attributed his symptoms to the cloud of vapors that wafted into his windows. To test the theory, he closed the windows at night for a few nights in a row, and his symptoms faded. He opened the windows at night again, and his symptoms returned.
“It’s an absolute disservice and a lie to the public that the industry is putting out there telling them that it’s a safe operation, when in fact you can’t make it safe because you’re subject to the natural world. We can’t make it safe, and Weld County is screwed.” – Shane Davis, the “Fractivist”
After that experience, Davis set out on a self-described “crusade” to educate others about the problems he believes are caused by the oil and gas industry’s increasing presence in Weld County and other heavily-drilled areas of Colorado. Armed with an educational background in biology and molecular physics and a passion for data-mining, Davis began pulling information from the COGCC database and publishing it on his blog.
Known as the “Fractivist,” Davis received national attention for using COGCC records to show that 40 percent of all oil spills in Weld County from 2008 to 2012 contaminated groundwater sources, a study that was later duplicated and confirmed by COGCC director Matt Lepore. Davis leads workshops on hydraulic fracturing, environmental issues, data analysis, map making and other methods. Lepore declined to comment on Davis or Ewing for this project.
Davis aided voters in Lafayette and Longmont in enacting the cities’ fracking bans—the only such bans in the state—by providing data and other information to residents. The 2012 Longmont ban was met with fierce opposition and a lawsuit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) and the state. The lawsuit will be decided later this year. Meanwhile, voters passed moratoria on fracking in Fort Collins, Broomfield and Boulder.
Davis predicts that hydraulic fracturing has damaged Weld County’s environment beyond repair.
“I see huge problems in Weld County,” Davis said. “These reclamations that need to happen are going to take millions of dollars in each case to actually clarify water, revegetate the land, decontaminate and replace the soils. This huge agricultural producer is probably going to be reduced to not even being put on the map because the industry is going to devastate the land so badly.”
“It’s going to be a Superfund site,” he said. “Right now, it should be considered a Superfund site. If the industry shut down today, you’re still going to have historic problems going forward. It’s such a detriment—an environmental catastrophe—not only to the land and the water but everyone who’s out there. It’s going to be a wasteland someday, and sadly, the citizens of Colorado are going to have to pay for it.”
Davis believes measures should be taken to hold oil and gas companies accountable for potential environmental and health-related damages in the future.
“What needs to happen is every single operator in Colorado and around the world needs to add a bioinformatic tracer down the wellbores—a benign tracer loaded with information about the operator and the specific wellbore,” he said, “so that any time there is a fluid migration anywhere, that fluid can be traced back to the exact point source of that pollution.”
Ultimately, Davis believes that all hydraulic fracturing and drilling operations are inherently dangerous and need to stop.
“It’s an absolute disservice and a lie to the public that the industry is putting out there telling them that it’s a safe operation, when in fact you can’t make it safe because you’re subject to the natural world,” Davis said. “We can’t make it safe, and Weld County is screwed.”
Jon Haubert, director of communications at Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED), said that activists like Davis are spreading “the absolute wrong information” about the oil and gas industry.
“All forms of energy are going to have some impact, whether it be on the land or other resources,” Haubert said. “It doesn’t matter what energy resource you’re using—wind, solar, nuclear—there’s going to be some sort of impact.”
Started and funded by Noble and Anadarko, the nonprofit describes its mission as one of educating the public on the oil and gas industry, promoting industry-sponsored information about hydraulic fracturing via social media and other online media. In addition to his role at CRED, Haubert is the manager of communications for the oil and gas trade association Western Energy Alliance (WEA).
Haubert says the best option for energy development is an “all of the above” approach, incorporating oil, gas, coal, wind, solar and nuclear power.
“Certainly the pendulum could swing the other way—there could be drilling like crazy, there’s no rules, there’s no regulations, people cut corners,” Haubert said. “That’s the extreme we don’t want. The other end is that it’s so tight and so difficult to produce the energy that we need that we have to radically change our lifestyles… and that’s the other extreme, I think. We have to find a balance where we can have the energy we need but do so responsibly, and I think natural gas fits a lot of those qualities.”
Haubert believes that activists like Davis have largely misinformed the public about oil and gas and hydraulic fracturing.
But Eric Ewing believes he was misinformed by the oil and gas industry, which he trusted to respect his rights as a homeowner.
“I pay a mortgage on the property, and the purpose of the property is to live on it,” he said. “And I think I should have that right as long as I pay my bills, and I’m not doing anything illegal, and I’m not annoying the neighbors. I’ve been living in harmony, and all of a sudden they come in saying ‘We don’t care if you want to live there or not.’”
He wonders if the operators near his property are attempting to create an uninhabitable environment that will force him to move, allowing them to condemn the property and drill more wells.
Since his recent experiences with the Noble wells and the Mewbourn plant near his property, Ewing has reevaluated his position on hydraulic fracturing.
“I kind of did a 180 on my perspective,” he said. “I tried to reduce my consumption. I put solar panels on my house and solar panels on the libraries. It’s all a coming-of-age for me on this stuff. But I think we’re all intelligent enough to know that if you’re spewing all of this stuff into the atmosphere and shooting stuff into the ground, it’s going to affect something.”
“Am I anti-oil and gas?” he said. “Well, you know, I’m getting there. And they made me that way.”