Neighbors of the Gun Club Estates in Arapahoe County are concerned about their future as a Texas-based oil company begins implementing a plan to drill up to 36 wells in a 30-square-mile plot of land in eastern Aurora. The neighbors are calling on county and state officials to implement regulations that at the very least require significant setback laws so that the drilling does not occur in their backyards.
At a town hall meeting held Thursday night at Aurora Community College — hosted by state Reps. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora — the potentially affected neighbors said they are already being pressured by brokers representing Anadarko Petroleum to sell their properties as the oil company prepares for its exploratory process. Neighbors are concerned over health issues related to a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, and monetary issues such as getting the best price for their property.
Eric Neeley, a scientist who lives in the new Cross Creek subdivision with his wife and newborn, raised concerns Thursday night over health hazards associated with the proposed drilling process. He pointed out that the proposed drilling is near the Vista Peak P-12 Campus, which enrolls about 1,200 students.
“What can we do to prevent Saudi Aurora from being so close to our homes?” asked Neeley. “Can we at least have some sort of support? Not stop it, but maybe back off a little bit, some sort of border?”
At the very least, neighbors would like a 10-mile setback so that the drilling does not occur in their backyards.
Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), said the industry is working with El Paso, Elbert and Weld counties on establishing setback rules. But citizens like Neeley want state lawmakers to craft actual regulations for the industry to follow. Neeley says without the rules, Aurora and Arapahoe County are going to lose precious property owners.
“If this happens, no one will sell their homes in our community, and none of the leftover lots will ever build a home,” he said.
During the meeting, lawmaker Ryden said the issue really falls to local municipalities to enact such laws. But when asked after the meeting whether regulations can be enacted on the state level, Ryden agreed that the Legislature could look at it.
“The reason the city can’t do it is because if it conflicts with something that’s in the state rules, they are overridden by the state, even if they’re a home-rule city,” said Ryden. “So, we need to look at what rules can we impact.”
Drilling issues have historically faced rural Colorado, with few wells established near urban areas. The last major drilling activity to take place in eastern Aurora was in 1972 when Chandler and Associates operated a well for only two years before shutting it down. But oil companies have set their sights on an oil and natural gas field known as Niobrara, encompassing much of the eastern plains and running through Arapahoe County. In Aurora, exploration is expected from Gun Club Road east to Watkins Road and from East Yale Avenue north to East Colfax Avenue. Anadarko has already drilled one vertical well and one horizontal well in the area and is currently considering another horizontal well by the end of the year, according to the company.
“As with any new area, future activity will be determined as more data is gathered and results are evaluated,” Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen wrote in an e-mail to The Colorado Statesman.
He said the oil company is discussing “leasing opportunities” with several of the property owners in the area, but that terms have yet to be established.
“Lease terms are dependent upon a number of factors, such as location, mineral rights, access, amount of surface required and proximity to proposed well locations,” said Christiansen in his response.
Ryden believes that preparations need to be taken to deal with a new onslaught of drilling in urban corridors of the state, especially Arapahoe County.
“This whole thing has caught so many people by surprise,” Ryden acknowledged. “Just the idea of it coming so close to the really urbanized areas — there’s been oil drilling in Weld County for 100 years, but there’s a big difference between having one of those platforms out in a pasture, you can’t even see them. But to have that activity going on right across the street from you, that’s different.”
Adding to concerns is the notion that “oil and water don’t mix,” referring to the hydraulic fracturing process known as fracking. The process fractures rock by employing the pressure of a fluid — often times including chemicals, sand and water — to increase the extraction rates in recovering oil and natural gas. The industry has faced harsh criticism over the issue, with widespread media reports and documentaries suggesting that it contaminates groundwater and puts citizens at risk. There have been some reports of faucets igniting on fire as a result of drilling activities associated with fracking in Weld and Garfield counties in Colorado. But COGA debunked those reports, instead finding that naturally occurring methane and fermenting organic matter was the cause of the combustibility. The Commission says there has never been a documented case of fracking that has contaminated groundwater in the state.
David Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, acknowledged that spills do occur, but he minimized health impacts from such an accident.
“Sometimes spills will occur, and when they do occur, we require that they be contained promptly, investigated promptly, and cleaned up promptly,” he said Thursday night.
That being said, Neslin does not anticipate health hazards associated with the actual fracking process itself.
“We’ve investigated numerous allegations. In no case have we found that to be the case,” he said. “There have been no impacts to drinking water as a result of hydraulic fracturing.”
The controversial drilling process has even received the endorsement of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former geologist who believes there is no evidence that fracking contaminates groundwater. Still, to alleviate concerns, Hickenlooper in August announced a program that will require the oil and gas industry to disclose ingredients used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The blueprint for the project was actually headed up by Anadarko with the creation of FracFocus.org, a clearinghouse for data on ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing on a per well basis.
Skeptics, however, say the problem is with the drilling itself. Weston Wilson, a former Environmental Protection Agency environmental engineer and an oil and gas industry whistleblower, said of the wells, “This is not your father’s well.”
“The risk comes from the drilling itself,” he said. “When we drill down through these aquifers, a lot of things can go wrong, and things do go wrong.”
Wilson says there is little oversight of the industry, noting that the average inspection of a well in Colorado lasts only about 10 minutes. Anadarko, however, says it takes several precautions to ensure that accidents do not occur. The company requires that multiple protective layers of pressure-tested steel pipe, known as casing, and cement be set several hundred feet below the deepest aquifer and cemented to the surface, according to Christiansen. The company says this process ensures “well integrity,” and that regular inspections of the wells are made to ensure “mechanical integrity.”
Christiansen says Anadarko is also very careful to reach out to the community to answer questions related to fracking and drilling activities.
“Safety and protecting public health are top priorities,” he said. “We fully comply with all state regulations, and we are working to communicate openly with landowners and area residents in various forums… as well as on an individual basis.”
All signs indicate that there will only be more drilling in Colorado. Arapahoe County could have as many as 3,000 wells over the next several years, and some anticipate as many as 100,000 oil and gas wells planned across the state over the next few decades. It is anticipated that oil companies will earn as much as $2 billion per section drilled.
“It is inconceivable that this should go on the way it has, it’s totally out of bounds,” said Phil Doe, a water issues advocate and a board member with Be the Change USA, a Colorado public policy think tank. “It’s a runaway freight train.”
Doe points out that the water demand associated with fracking is huge, anywhere from 15-30-acre-feet per frack — enough water for the annual domestic needs of 300 people.
Sean Lieske, manager of environmental permitting for Aurora Water, said on Thursday night that the city has been approached by the oil and gas industry to sell water, a necessary component. But Lieske did not discuss details, only saying that the city has not made any deals.
Nancy Jackson, an Arapahoe County commissioner, was adamant that the County will not be selling water to the industry.
“We are not in the water business,” she said.
Jackson has expressed a litany of concerns associated with the proposals for drilling, including environmental hazards and using limited resources. She says there are currently 60 new applications for wells being considered in Arapahoe County. The county is currently drafting new regulations to address concerns, which will be made public on Oct. 26.
Some of Jackson’s concerns go beyond the drilling process itself, and instead focus on unintended consequences from the drilling, such as impacts to roads and infrastructure.
“Let’s just assume that the oil wells are going to have a minimum impact, the impact of the trucks alone — the diesel fumes from the carting back and forth … and the hundreds of millions of gallons of water — I’m not sure where that’s coming from,” said Jackson.
“It’s not a simple process, there are many, many conflicting opinions, and there’s a lot of information,” she continued. “So, those of us who are not geologists have a lot of work to do.”