What most people recognize as the oil and gas industry are the outward signs of its production – the towering drilling rig, wellheads and compressor stations that dot the landscape; caravans of frac pumps, blenders, and assorted machinery trailing along the highway.
By Kelly Sloan
In fact, a surprisingly large percentage of the industry’s time, efforts, and resources are directed towards technologies, initiatives and programs aimed at environmental and conservation concerns.
In speaking with some of the major industry operators in the State, one quickly discovers a culture of environmental stewardship that is so common that it has become ubiquitous; “This is old hat to us,” said Bill Barrett Corporation’s Doug Dennison, as he discussed several practices common within Colorado’s oil and gas world, from the routine – such as directional drilling and spill prevention – to important major initiatives, such as the recycling of produced water.
In the Western Slope’s Piceance Basin, produced water treatment is a very serious issue with WPX Resources (formerly Williams Energy). So serious, in fact, that they have invested millions into two state-of-the-art treatment facilities, in Parachute and Rulison, Colorado. These centralized water management facilities take produced water generated from the producer’s hydraulic fracturing operations, and then run it through a series of treatment processes that remove any traces of hydrocarbon contamination, after which it is reused in its fracing operations.
Reusing this water is a double blessing, as it reduces dramatically the amount of water needed to be drawn from local sources, such as the Colorado River, and also deals with a major disposal issue for the company.
“From a waste management perspective, this is huge for us,” said Michael Gardner, WPX Environmental manager for the Piceance Basin. “Offsite waste water disposal is an enormous challenge.” Expensive too, according to Gardner, as offsite disposal of produced water can cost operators $5 to 8 per barrel, making the upfront expenditures on treatment and recycling well worth it.
And of course, from a conservation standpoint, re-using what would otherwise be waste water makes a great deal of sense, says Gardner, an even more critical consideration in drought years. Doug Dennison, speaking about Bill Barrett’s own produced water management program, agrees; “By recycling and reusing our produced water we don’t have to pull fresh water and can cut down the demand on the local water supply.”
Colorado oil and gas operators are also relying more and more on the use of pipelines for moving fluids, thereby greatly reducing truck traffic. According to Dennison, Bill Barrett Corp. cut their reliance on truck transport by 80 to 85% just by using pipelines for their water requirements.
Reducing the number of trucks needed cuts down on dust, exhaust, and suspended particles – improving air quality while simultaneously mitigating noise and safety concerns.
OPERATORS BUY IN
A vast majority of oil and gas operators in Colorado also voluntarily participate in some form of water and/or air-quality monitoring. WPX, for instance, participates in a baseline water-quality monitoring program which analyzes both pre- and post – drilling samples (see FIELD OPS article in this issue for more details). Gardner calls it insurance.
“Doing this lets us know if there is a problem developing, which enables us to respond and deal with it before it becomes too big.” To date, the monitoring efforts have not identified any difference in the before and after drilling quality of local water.
Bill Barrett Corp. participates, along with other operators, in funding a state- of-the-art-air-quality monitoring project in the Piceance Basin, designed to provide defensible science on emissions and how they are dispersed. “What we are looking for are good data,” said Barrett’s Dennison. “We want to see if there are air quality issues, and if so, how best to mitigate them.”
WILDLIFE AND HABITAT INITIATIVES
Air and water are not the only things being monitored and studied by Colorado’s oil and gas industry. Doug Hock, Director of Community and Public Relations for Encana Corporation, described the comprehensive and ongoing environmental monitoring program on the company’s 45,000 acre North Parachute Ranch. Encana has more than 650 active wells on the property and runs various air and water quality monitoring projects. However, the company also maintains an extensive program of wildlife management, including habitat studies, identification and mapping of migration routes, elk calving grounds, and raptor nesting areas, and funding of sage grouse population studies.
Many other operating companies also contribute significantly to habitat research, often through partnerships with various wildlife and conservation organizations across the West, including Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Mule Deer Association, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Trout Unlimited.
In fact, Denny Behrens of the Colorado Mule Deer Association asserts that without the participation and assistance of the oil and gas industry, western deer herds would not be as healthy and vibrant as they are now.
“Without the energy industry, there would quite simply be very little money available for habitat research,” said Behrens. “When oil and gas first came to Western Colorado, a lot of folks were afraid of the possible negative impacts, but the reality is that they have the best habitat projects in the West.”
A crucial point to be noted is that the vast majority of these initiatives are entirely voluntary, and not a response to any regulatory or legal pressures or requirements.
So why are these companies, whose main business is extracting energy, involved to such a great extent in environmental concerns? According to the operators with home I spoke, it is, at least in part, just good business.
“Encana seeks to be the operator of choice wherever we go” said Hock, “and we won’t be if we do not take care of the land, air and water where we work.” WPX’s Garder reiterated that many of his company’s environmental initiatives promote efficiency that ultimately saves the company and its investors’ money.
But Barrett’s Doug Dennison offered another more personal reason; “We live here. We hunt in these hills. We have a very immediate interest in taking care of where we live.”
In any event, the symbiotic relationship between Colorado’s oil and gas industry and the preservation of its environmental heritage is not one that will be broken in the foreseeable future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelly Sloan is a freelance writer and editor based in Grand Junction, Colorado. He frequently writes about the oil and gas industry in the West.