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Posted: August 01, 2013

Frackers and farmers

Oil & gas and agriculture look for common ground

Fearing a decline in water availability because of decreased snowpack, drought and climate change, Guttridge is concerned that oil and gas development removes a sizeable amount of water from the hydrological cycle.

“Each well requires between 2 and 8 million gallons of water in order to be fracked,” he said. “Once you take those millions of gallons and inject them into the earth, on average only 50 percent comes back, and much of that water is highly contaminated and cannot be cleaned. Less than 20 percent of the total amount of water that goes down each hole can be returned into the natural hydrological cycle. Instead, most of what does come back has to be permanently stored or is injected into even deeper underground disposal wells.”

Yet far and away, agriculture is the largest user of water in the state, roughly 85 percent of the state’s water used is for that purpose. Vital to the health of any farm is the availability of enough clean, affordable water for raising crops and livestock. The majority of Colorado’s farmers rely on ample supplies of clean ditch water from snowmelt running off the mountains. Many also buy from municipal water sources, and some farmers and ranchers have their own wells that access underground aquifers.

Warning that there’s a lot of misinformation out there, Tisha Schuller, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), said, “It’s absurd to worry that there won’t be enough water for everyone.” An analysis of water use for oil and gas conducted by the Office of State Engineering and the Colorado Department of Natural Resources found that, “All the water used in oil and natural gas development annually, and projected into the future makes up only one-tenth of 1 percent of all of Colorado’s water.” To acquire water, “Our industry has to lease or get water rights in the same way others have to.” In fact, to ensure water’s pecking order, there’s a state statute giving a priority to agricultural and residential use before all industrial uses, Schuller said.  

Another popular myth is that though the industry is exempt from some specific stipulations within the Clean Water, Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water acts, it somehow gets a free pass from all three. “I don’t know why people think we are exempt from the Clean Air Act; we just aren’t. Every aspect of oil and gas development is highly regulated,” Schuller said. Though the processes are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA delegates its authority to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission.

Just this year, the EPA established new rules designed to capture methane emissions with oil and natural gas development. “This regulation was based on voluntary statewide testing that industry conducted. I actually testified before a senate subcommittee about this rule,” Schuller said. “I was and am in favor of it because it was based on our state efforts and we had such success with air reductions associated with it. Today we have extensive regulatory programs in the state that exceed federal regulations. Colorado is a leader in air regulation.”

Still, many farmers are concerned about the threat of water contamination from oil spills or leaky infrastructure. As of the third week in June, more than 175 oil and gas spills had been reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Though most of these didn’t involve chemicals or treated water leaving the well-pad, “The incidents of spills that contaminate water supplies are greater than I’m comfortable with. The ditch water I use for irrigation has to be protected. We simply cannot afford a Parachute Creek-like incident here,” said Waltermire, referring to the large spill earlier this year where benzene levels were found to be 3,600 times the state health limit within just a few feet of Parachute Creek, which flows into the Colorado River.

To monitor and ensure water quality, Weld County has offered a free water well test for any landowner. “They’ve been doing this for over a year, and with a large number of water wells and over 20,000 operating gas wells, the county has found no issues” of well or water contamination, said Doug Flanders, COGA’s director of Policy and External Affairs. 

While the oil and natural gas industry makes every effort to capture all the emissions that come back along with produced oil and natural gas, a portion does escape into the atmosphere. “The oil and gas industry is making strides to reduce the amount of fugitive methane and other gases, such as VOC (volatile organic compounds), through the use of new technology and practices,” Colglazier said. As far as how animals are affected by living in those environments? “It’s hard to say. Even Dr. Chris Urbina, the most recent Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), suggests that we do not have the proper data from properly conducted studies to say that production of oil and gas has any affect on humans, let alone agricultural animals in the area whose lifespan is significantly shorter,” said Colglazier. 

Going forward, in order to understand how oil and gas development is impacting air quality, CDPHE will soon begin a three-year study looking at air quality issues associated with oil and gas development. This study is based on ongoing research led by Colorado State University, which is looking at oil and gas emissions in Garfield County specifically. “We are optimistic that the results will provide all interested stakeholders the information needed to address health concerns associated with oil and gas drilling,” said Colglazier.

Achieving Co-Existence

COGA’s Schuller says much of the pushback against fracking is coming from urban dwellers and newcomers to the state. “Though oil and gas production is not new to Colorado, many people are new to operations,” said Schuller. “Our lives are so completely interdependent on oil and gas that we can’t separate ourselves from it. We can’t enjoy our lifestyles and then turn around and say development can’t happen here. What’s really important is not taking your cues from the perspective of a boutique farmer and say, ‘I don’t want oil and gas development nearby, period.’ Instead, here’s the challenge: Let’s develop this incredible energy source right. The questions are really: How are we going to resolve this? What options are on the table? Who is coming together to figure out how we can invest in the best water and energy solutions going forward?” 

Back in the North Fork, Waltermire concedes that though, “I’m not willing to close the door on co-existence, I just don’t think the current exploration techniques are compatible with the agritourism model we’re working with. But if there is a way, let’s talk about it. Lets have that conversation.”

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