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Fracking Not Focus of Drilling Complaints in Several Western States

Although the layman's common perception is that hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is environmentally harmful, threatening water supplies around the nation, at least three states with robust fossil fuel production -- Colorado, North Dakota and Wyoming -- don't have much data to support the perceptions.

Environmental, health and energy officials in these states told NGI's Shale Daily that, like other states to the east, they have regular complaints/reports about oil/gas drilling impacts, but in the vast majority of the cases fracking is not found to be a cause of the problem.

Officials in the three west-of-the-Mississippi states were all aware of a recent Associated Press (AP) report that Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia had recorded their share of complaints and incidents of "well water contamination." The AP report said its finding ran counter to oil/gas industry claims that contamination has rarely occurred.

“We’re certainly not seeing the same amounts of complaints, compared with the reports from four other states,” said Dennis Fewless, a spokesperson in the North Dakota Department of Health, which follows up on complaints about oil/gas drilling operations and keeps track of them on an ongoing basis.

“We’re certainly responding to complaints, and we’re out investigating any concerns the public may have,” Fewless said. “If there are dots to connect, we’ll connect them, but at this point we haven’t found any of them.”

Nevertheless, following a 20,000 bbl leak from a Tesoro Logistics LP pipeline last September that went unreported by state officials for days, North Dakota late last year began redefining its policy for handling oil and natural gas releases, resulting in a series of reports of small incidents in recent weeks (see Shale Daily, Dec. 4, 2013). Longer term, state officials are working on a new set of guidelines affecting both the Department of Mineral Resources Oil/Gas Division and the state health department.

Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does not track complaints, but it keeps a data bank on spills, which can include transportation and storage spills along with those that happen in the oil/gas drilling process. DEQ has had no incidents reported involving alleged water contamination and neither did the state Oil/Gas Conservation Commission.

Since the complaints that led to the controversial testing for methane leakage into water supplies in Pavillion, WY, in 2011 (see Daily GPI, Nov. 18, 2011), DEQ has not had many, if any, reports, according to DEQ spokesman Keith Guille, who added that all of Wyoming's spills are compiled on a data base on the department's website (www.deq.state.wy.us).

In calendar year 2013, the Colorado Oil/Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) recorded four cases of suspected impacts to private domestic, water wells from oil/gas activities. Most involved methane, according to the COGCC data. COGCC gets about 200-plus reports annually.

“There is no easy way to tease out local water contamination due to drilling and hydraulic fracturing," said Todd Hartman, an agency spokesperson. “It is other aspects of oil and gas development, outside of drilling and fracturing that typically lead to water and groundwater impacts. Storage tank leak/releases would be a more typical example.”

Hartman said it is wellbores that have contaminated water supplies. “These cases are highly unusual,” he said.

To provide some context for Colorado, he cited 36 "suspected or confirmed” cases since 1990 of wellbore problems tied to water impacts. And these cases are “enormously complex,” he said. Of the 36 cases remaining under investigation, pinning down what precisely occurred is difficult. Over the same 23-year period, there have been  42,000 wells drilled in Colorado, Hartman said.

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