HUERFANO — Nineteen members of the twenty-seat Huerfano County Community Forum met on March 15 and heard presentations by Shell representatives detailing the company’s plans to test water wells near the sites of proposed test and production wells.
The meeting, also attended by seven agency guests and about 30 audience members, was facilitated by Mike Hughes, from the Keystone Center, a nonprofit organization that helps leaders “advance good public policy” through organized discussions. Katelyn Roberts, Shell community relations rep, described the part Hughes plays in the meetings: “He gives everyone a level playing field.”
The issue of Shell’s development of petroleum resources in Huerfano County certainly requires that organized discussion. It is a highly controversial topic, with a segment of the population eagerly anticipating the prospect of economic growth while another segment looks to the future with trepidation to a day when Shell might begin geologic fracturing and potentially injure the quality of area aquifers.
As an update, Philippe Heer, Shell’s local project manager, told the forum that all of the 3D seismic data from the Gardner area has been acquired and is being processed. There was some background noise from the wind, but Heer reported that it’s still good data. Shell is almost finished with the due diligence on the water purchased from Thorne Ranch, near Badito, and expects the purchase to be finalized by April.
When asked by a forum member why Shell purchased water when it is unsure of the necessity of fracturing wells that have not even been drilled yet, Heer responded that Shell isn’t sure what will happen, and water is needed for many aspects of the project, for instance drilling and dust abatement, not just for fracturing. He also assured, “The water will stay here in the county.”
Shell will apply for four drilling permits, one in 2012 and three in 2013. Heer said if the 2012 exploratory well – where Shell is looking for light oil – is encouraging, then up to three wells will be drilled in 2013. The well locations, as well as the 3D seismic data, are proprietary information. Heer also told the crowd that the existing geology at the first well is such that it will not need to be fractured. He added, “There is an 80% chance that the well will be dry,” and if it is “bone dry,” meaning no liquid hydrocarbons, Shell may drill next year or decide to pull out of the area.
Shell’s typical development schedule includes three to five years of exploration, with a final investment decision in about five years. If production is indicated, the development period would be ten years, followed by thirty years of production. At the end of production, the area would be reclaimed.
It was obvious from the questions posed to the Shell representatives that the preservation of water quality is foremost in many forum members’ minds. Although fracking was not on this meeting’s agenda, a few questions still crept in. By Heer’s estimate, “fracking” requires five to six million gallons of water (10 acre-feet) per well, with an unspecified mixture of chemicals. Heer explained that fracking is only done once on a well, the fractures only extend about 300 feet, and the effects last ten years before the fractures silt in. After that, the driller decides whether to abandon the well or if it is worth a workover.
Before drilling begins, there will be preliminary water testing. Shell has contracted with AECOM (www.aecom.com), a global provider of technical and management support, to conduct hydrologic studies and water sampling. AECOM is focusing on the area north of the West Spanish Peak and west of La Veta. Jim Paulson showed the forum cross sections of the rock layers of the northern Raton basin; a type log of local formations obtained in 2010; and the representative geology of a line from the Sangre de Cristos to I-25, lying south of La Veta and ending just north of Aguilar. Paulson referred to the 2,000-foot-thick layer of Pierre Shale beginning at 3,300 feet as a “confining layer” and a “frack barrier.” The depth of Shell exploration will be around 7,000 feet.
Paulson said that one month before drilling, two water wells within a one mile radius from the drilling site will be tested for current baseline conditions. This is in line with Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) guidelines. The ideal scenario would be two wells opposite each other with the Shell drilling site directly between them. If there is a need to test more than two wells, they will do so. If there are no wells within that radius, they will sample any surface water within the one mile radius. Paulson admitted that the key unknown is what direction the aquifer flows. The wells will be tested again one year after the well is drilled to monitor changes after drilling, and then again at three years. Constituents that indicate changes in the water quality will be monitored. The data would be provided to the well owner and COGCC. The results then become public record.
Heer told the group, “If the well is drilled properly, there will be no damage to the aquifer.” He explained that dual casings at each aquifer crossing are concreted in place to protect subsurface waters. There are three primary aquifers underlying this region.
AECOM will be responsible for collecting the water samples after a fifteen-minute well purge, packing and/or cooling them appropriately for transport, and using accepted “Chain-of-Custody” procedures to get them to a third-party accredited laboratory in Denver in a timely manner.
The lab will test for a broad range of analytes listed by COGCC plus the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), including metals, general chemistry, dissolved gases, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Shell requires testing for five additional analytes: mercury, silver, hardness, lower explosive limit, and carbonate/bicarbonate. The forum has a web site at: http://communityforum.keystone.org/. There is a documents section with public information. When the website is updated with the March meeting information, the chart of COGCC/COGA analytes will be listed there along with the presentations from the meeting.
For all those well owners who are not chosen for the baseline study, there will be an opportunity to have wells tested voluntarily. The group Citizens for Huerfano County has involved Perry Cabot and the Northern Plains and Mountains Regional Water Program to provide baseline water testing for rural water owners. Cabot works with the Colorado Water Institute and is an adjunct professor at CSU Pueblo. “We like people to sample their water – we like them to know what they’re drinking,” Cabot said.
Cabot’s group plans to use all the voluntary water test guidelines under COGA Region 8. For more information go to: www.USAWaterquality.org and click on region 8. There will be two tiers of testing, and Cabot said they are working on perhaps getting discounted pricing. The drilling baseline package cost is listed at $250 on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment web site and tests for: VOCs, pH, dissolved solids, chloride, fluoride, alkalinity, sulfate, arsenic, barium, chromium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, nitrate/nitrite, iron, sulfur, selenium and uranium. Cabot said the well owner’s name and location of the well would be protected when the report becomes available to the public. Heer commented, “We support this sampling of the wells.” Cabot can be reached at the following Perry.Cabot@colostate.edu .
Heer later told the World Journal, “We’re honoring the COGCC rules; we’re honoring the COGA rules. Then we have our own rules. We’re going beyond what’s needed. We’re firm with this.” Regarding input from the Forum, he said, “We’re open to ideas. We’re willing to listen. We’ll see if there is some middle ground.” On well testing, he admitted, “Clearly we’re not going to sample the whole valley.” Katelyn Roberts added, “We’re going to take this back and evaluate the middle ground that we can reach.”
Shell has leased 130,000 acres so far, and has been leasing about 600 acres per week. The opening of the Shell office is imminent and will be at 126 E 6th St. in Walsenburg.
The next forum meeting will be April 19 at the Huerfano County Community Center in Walsenburg.