Plenty of gas under Colorado, but low prices, emissions issues to limit drilling

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AURORA | A study of air pollution from western Colorado fracking wells found the highest rate of emissions came just after fracking was completed.

The research released Tuesday didn’t measure the effects on human health, but it will help state officials devise such a study later.

In this 2014 photo provided by Colorado State University, CSU research associate Kira Shonkwiler, front, and student Landan MacDonald, standing behind Shonkwiler, set up a weather station in Garfield County, Colo., as part of a study on air pollution from fracking wells. A study of air pollution from western Colorado fracking wells released Tuesday, June 14, 2016, found the highest rate of emissions came just after fracking was completed. (Arsineh Hecobian/Colorado State University via AP)Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, uses pressurized water, sand and chemicals to break open underground formations and release oil and gas.

The study looked at methane and ozone-causing compounds released from new fracking wells.

Jeff Collett, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University, said the study found the emissions rate was highest when gas began to flow from the well, pushing the water and chemicals back out.

The $1.7 million study was funded by Garfield County and drilling companies. Collett discussed it with county commissioners Tuesday.

The study comes at a time when Aurora is grappling with how to handle what once was viewed as a potential drilling boom along the city’s eastern edge.

Before gas prices plumetted — a development that led many drillers to slash jobs and roll back their operations along the front Range and Western Slope — local leaders and eastern Aurora residents worried about the potential impact oil and gas development could have on the city’s roads and air quality.

Last spring, the city reworked an oil and gas drilling advisory panel, adding more members critical of fracking as well as more from the extraction industries.

And activists are pushing a handful of ballot measures that could ban fracking altogether or at least put restrictions on the practice, including forcing drillers to move their operations further away from homes and churches than current law requires.

Kevin Hougen, president of the Aurora Chamber, said local business leaders aren’t very confident that oil and gas will be a growing part of Aurora’s economy in the future.

With gas prices as low as they are, it doesn’t make financial sense for companies to explore for more natural gas, he said.

“It would take a huge price increase in natural gas before we see the drillers and explorers come back,” he said.

Still, oil and gas exploration in Colorado could pick up again someday — though likely not soon — especially on the Western Slope.

Western Colorado has 40 times more natural gas than previously thought, but an immediate boom is unlikely because of low gas prices, government and industry experts said Wednesday.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the Mancos Shale formation in Colorado’s Piceance Basin holds about 66.3 trillion cubic feet of gas, up from 1.6 trillion estimated in 2003.

USGS cited data from commercial drilling companies and new research for the revision.

A trillion cubic feet of natural gas is enough to heat 15 million homes for a year, the U.S. Energy Department says.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said he doesn’t expect a rush to drill in western Colorado because current natural gas prices are too low. If prices rise significantly, companies would likely begin drilling, he said.

The U.S. also needs more facilities to export natural gas to Pacific nations to help make the Colorado gas competitive, Ludlam said, citing the proposed Jordan Cove Liquid Natural Gas terminal at Coos Bay, Oregon.

The Piceance Basin, which spans much of western and northwestern Colorado, already has multiple well sites, pipelines and processing plants in place from a previous round of drilling in a shallower formation, Ludlam said.

Much of the basin is federal land managed by the Bureau of Land Management, and getting approval from the BLM to drill is often more difficult than getting private landowners to agree, said Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group.

“I hope with this reassessment the government understands that indeed the Mancos Shale is an important formation that should be developed responsibly,” she said.

Neither BLM nor USGS officials returned calls Wednesday.

The new estimate could mean the Piceance Basin has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the country, after the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania and neighboring states, Ludlam said.

More important than the volume of the reserves is the cost of extracting them, said Porter Bennett, an energy analyst and president of Ponderosa Advisors in Denver.

Bennett said the Piceance Basin has traditionally had high drilling costs, but Ludlam said the next wave of energy companies with leases in the area likely would have lower costs than previous operators.

— Sentinel reporter Brandon Johansson contributed to this report.