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Community forum hears details of proposed drilling

by Carol Dunn
WALSENBURG — Shell drilling engineer Rob Wheeler used a Powerpoint presentation on April 19 to walk the attendees of the community forum through the standard Shell drilling procedures, including fracturing because of a heightened community interest in the process. Project Manager Phillipe Heer told the audience, “One of the business principles of Shell is to be totally transparent.”
Wheeler stressed Shell’s five operating principles: safety and well integrity; sustainable drinking water; air quality; reducing the company’s footprint; and engaging the community. “The most dangerous thing we do in this business is driving up and down the road,” Wheeler said.
The technical process of drilling a well and hydraulic fracturing are explained succinctly by a video that is available on the Shell web site: . (Look on the right side of the page, under related links. You will need to download the video, then unzip the file.)
As Wheeler described it, the hydrocarbon reserves that produce easily have been used for a long time, so now exploration companies must go after hydrocarbons that are harder to produce. Historically oil shale exploration has involved one well per pad. Modern methods can utilize one pad, about three to four acres in size, for multiple wells, reducing the footprint.
Wheeler said Shell’s typical plan is for one pad per square mile. During drilling, the vertical bore hole is sealed (cased) by concrete as soon as it passes through an aquifer. A slurry of water plus bentonite (gel) is used in drilling as a friction inhibitor. Bentonite also has a sealant property (referred to as layer cake) which seals off the layers through which the bore hole passes. During the exploration phase, an open pit will be used for holding clean water, which is reused and recycled.
If and when fracturing takes place, Wheeler said Shell will not use “frac” ponds to hold the fracturing liquids, 80% of which will be returned to the surface. The fluids will originate and be returned via a closed system.
Wheeler said hydraulic fracturing allows the rock layers to give up tightly held hydrocarbons, which can then enter the drilled hole and be pumped to the surface. The fracturing fluid is 99% water and sand and 1% chemical additives. Because of the intense pressures at the target depth, the fracturing typically only extends a few hundred feet. Sand is used to keep the fractures open because they tend to want to close back up once the pressure is removed.
Wheeler said, “Hydraulic fracturing is a very expensive process, and we don’t want to spend any more than we have to.” He said the different features of the fracturing process are all monitored closely, including the casings.
If and when fracturing occurs, the chemicals that were used will be reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and also posted on Including a paperwork delay, the report will show up in about 60 days. Scott Scheffler, Shell Communications Advisor, told the HWJ, “COGCC is one of the strictest regulatory agencies in the nation.”
Other agencies that will be involved are Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, EPA, Bureau of Land Management/ Authority for Federal Minerals, US Fish & Wildlife Service and Colorado Division of Wildlife.
Another topic of community interest is how an emergency would be handled. An emergency could range from a broken leg to a blowout, the total loss of control over a well. Wheeler pointed out some of the potential risks, including: site security, medical, leaks, spills, releases, weather, earthquakes, well control, or even a missing person.
Shell has already conducted a meeting with first responders and discussed the procedures already in place in order to determine what the County can expect from Shell, and what Shell can expect from the county. A major emergency, a blowout for instance, would trigger involvement of the National Incident Management System, created by the Department of Homeland Security, and the federal government would take over.
Wheeler said Shell is considering holding a full response drill in the county. Shell will have its own response staff onsite during drilling, and the company has a backup crew based in Hammond, LA with a 24-hour response time worldwide. Wheeler told the audience, “Shell has never had an on-land out-of-control blowout in the U.S.” Although frac chemical providers trademark their mix of chemicals, in the case of an accident involving frac fluids, a medical physician can request the patented list of chemicals, and it must be disclosed for medical treatment.
USGS will be conducting a groundwater survey in Huerfano County, as described by Al Tucker. Tucker is on the State Engineer’s Advisory Committee for Groundwater, and he characterized Huerfano County as a “blank spot” for hydrology information. Tucker said Shell will collaborate on the two-to-three-year study, which will collect generalized information on the different aquifers using field reconnaissance and select potable water wells. Ken Watts with USGS said the effort is designed, “to define what aquifers we’re looking at.”
Of importance to the drilling process is the depth to water and how deep an aquifer is. Watts said he anticipates studying the two aquifers that carry underground water to the eastern plains. Heer said Shell is interested in how the underground water moves. “We’re very interested in participating. We welcome that,” he said.
After the meeting, forum member David Gnaizda, a retired water quality control specialist, told the HWJ, “The USGS survey is critically important for the future of Huerfano County, whether Shell finds oil here or finds a dry hole. The whole key here is water.”
Regarding the household drinking water well testing project, Perry Cabot with CSU told everyone, “We’ve started. The progress has been fairly significant.” He distributed to the forum members a 34-page Quality Analysis Plan, which lists three tiers of analytes that can be tested for. The testing will require the well driller’s construction log, and most of it will be done the second and third weeks of May.
In response to a question, Cabot said the community wells in Gardner probably will not be tested because wells need to be purged for a certain amount of time before sampling, and the Gardner well output may be too great for that to take place. Gnaizda told the crowd, “This [testing] is defensible, with a chain of command and a recognized laboratory … I would definitely encourage this.”
Shell is about to file two APDs (applications for permit to drill). As Heer described it, one well and a spare in case there is a problem with the first one. The test well is planned for November. It will be drilled to 7500 feet, backed off 1000 feet, then lateral drilling will take place. The drilling is expected to take about 60 days, after which a two week cleanup will take place.
The first well will not be fractured, so it will be fitted with a pre-perforated liner. Heer told the HWJ that, if coalbed methane is found during drilling, it will be cased off and not produced. If natural gas is found during drilling, it will likely be produced and used onsite to run generators.
Heer said Shell has finished its socioeconomic impact study and will present the findings at the next forum.
Traffic studies of the drilling area are being conducted to determine if there are alternate routes. Ambient noise and light surveys are also planned for the area. Heer said the data will be publicized before drilling commences.
Regrettably, there has been some vandalism of Shell contractor equipment in the Gardner area. Heer admitted that bullet holes were found in some of the trucks; metal shavings were used to damage some of the equipment; traffic signs have been vandalized; and gun shots (believed to be warnings) have been heard.
The day after the forum meeting, member Ann Wilkinson told HWJ, “It’s fairly groundbreaking that they [Shell] have revealed as much as they have revealed. They’ve been far more cooperative than I thought they would be. They are taking us seriously.”
Forum member Dale Lyons said, “We’d like answers to the items they said they’d get back to us on. There are still more topics, and Shell seems to think they are about done with forum meetings.” Some additional items Lyons said have not yet been addressed include : plans for emissions, dust control and air quality; the possibility of hiring from the local workforce; landowner rights; food and lodging needs; worksite security; a waste disposal plan; plans for road repairs; information on radioactive deposits; electric vs. gas generators; substance testing and background checks for workers.
Wilkinson suggested Shell put up a bond larger than the required $25,000 … “as a show of good faith – producing a bond that has some meaning.”
Gnaizda described the participation of forum members as a commitment to the community. Lyons added, “We are doing this out of love for this community – for humankind.”
The public can access Community Forum information in the Documents section at

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