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Frack-Flavored Gas

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This article emerged from the fourth of 10 planned lectures held by the Center of the American West, CU Continuing Education, Boulder County, and the AirWaterGas Research Network (of the National Science Foundation/Sustainability Research Network) on various aspects of hydraulic fracturing.  

If Weld County is the Las Vegas of the Colorado gas rush, Garfield County is the Reno.  About 60% of Garfield County is publicly owned, and beneath that property shale of the Piceance Basin lies waiting for us to unleash its bounty--or so we kid ourselves.  Bisected by I70 west of the Continental Divide, Garfield County hosts roughly 10,000 oil and gas wells, about half the tally of Colorado's premier fracking county, Weld.  And, rather like Las Vegas, what happens in Garfield County stays in Garfield County.  Until it reaches the river, anyway. 

To this fourth lecture in the fracking series held at the University of Colorado came Kirby Wynn[1], currently the oil-and-gas liaison for Garfield County, here to tell us how he has solved problems and forged connections between the oil-and-gas industry and the people impacted thereby.  His talk, titled as garrulously as is its author, was "Garfield County's Lessons Learned about Oil and Gas Development:  Building Relationships with Industry and the Community to Effectively Address Citizen Concerns". 

Lessons learned imply that corrections have been made to what had been amiss.  According to the liaison, irritants such as lights, noise, and odors had been and were being addressed to the satisfaction of all.  Garfield County, he told us, is proactive, not reactive.  But concerning the underground flow of hydrocarbons and toxins that is headed for Parachute Creek and ultimately the Colorado River and of which he made no mention, the county falls short of proactive. 

The First Seep

On March 9, 2004, Lisa Bracken, a Garfield County resident, realized that something had happened at the "Arbaney" well.  Whatever it was, it caused the earth to shake for a mile around.  Three weeks later, an estimated 115 million cubic feet of natural gas blew out at the "Schwartz" well.  By the first of April bubbles in West Divide Creek would ignite with application of a match. 

Residents notified several agencies but the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, an industry advocate, had, through prior agreement, authority to respond.  COGCC placed a moratorium for two miles around what came to be known as the "main seep".   Then the industry showed its displeasure and the moratorium was dispatched.   

Methane usually comes from decomposition of organic material.  When produced by bacteria, as cattle amply demonstrate, or by the fermenting of organic material, or by the chemical reduction of carbon dioxide, it is called biogenic.  Methane is thermogenic when it's created by the heated decomposition of deeply buried organic material. 

Biogenic or thermogenic, methane is simply methane with a hint of ethane.  But when released by fracking, the gas is laden with heavier hydrocarbons such as propane, butane, pentane, and hexanes (BTEX compounds) contained in fracking fluid.  Regardless of origin, when methane carries BTEX fracking is involved.  

COGCC determined that two seeps in close geographic proximity along West Divide Creek are unrelated.  One was biogenic and simply nature's doing.  The other was thermogenic and BTEX-laden.  A gas-well borehole had not been properly cemented, allowing the migration of gas and its BTEX baggage.  COGCC levied a "substantial" fine against Encana.  According to Bracken, however, COGCC chose to ignore other "vigorously bubbling" seeps in the area. 

Encana re-cemented its well and the seep slowed but did not stop entirely.  It continued oozing benzene and possibly fracking chemicals into the water of West Divide Creek.  No one including COGCC, the EPA, and Encana can explain why the seep continues. 

The Second Seep

When, according to Bracken, a new seep developed in 2008, two years passed before investigators got around to investigating.  Finally, in 2010, she says, "production gas containing methane, propane, butane, ethane, and pentane was found to have emerged in new areas of West Divide Creek as well as within a neighbor's water well."  A soil-gas survey along the creek confirmed "the presence of high concentrations of methane as well as propane, butane, and other homologs", or chemically similar hydrocarbons--BTEX compounds.  But despite the findings COGCC did not deem it necessary to ascertain the source of the contamination or even to warn residents.  In fact it sees no need to install a single groundwater monitor at the site of the 2008 seep. 

The Third Seep

In mid-March of this year, an underground "plume" of over 1500 gallons of liquid hydrocarbons was discovered by industry contractors preparing to drill along Garfield County's Parachute Creek.  Work crews marking underground pipelines were caught off-guard by the unsavory pool, its source a mystery.  By three weeks after the discovery, more than 153 thousand gallons of groundwater and more than six thousand gallons of "unidentified hydrocarbon" liquids and compounds had been removed from the site.  Although as of the end of March the flow rate of the plume had slowed, it still measured 405 feet by 170 feet by 14 feet deep.  It is making its inexorable way toward Parachute Creek, which ultimately drains into the Colorado River.  Twenty-seven days after the discovery, benzene was detected in groundwater 10 feet from the creek.  The state, the feds, and the industry say no problem; benzene will evaporate quickly and precautions at the spill site have been taken.  We have to take their word for it; reporters are not permitted at the site. 

The First Liaison

Although the gas rush is a fairly new phenomenon, Wynn is not Garfield County's first liaison.  Judy Jordan was liaison from 2007 until four years later, when she was sacked without explanation.   Although county officials were mum about the dismissal, one year earlier oil and gas officials from several entities had sent the county a letter accusing Jordan of harboring "a perceived partiality" that did not jibe with industry interests.  

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Schooled in psychology and biomedical illustration, of course I became a medical writer!

In 2014 my husband and I and our kitty moved from Colorado, where Jerry had been born, to Canada, where I had been. (Born.)
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