WyoFile Energy Report

Former state legislator; ‘All we lack is some leadership’

As drilling and seismic mapping technologies continue to advance our ability to plumb the subterranean and unlock massive amounts of domestic oil and natural gas, many in the industry hint at a massive new drilling boom in the Rockies like never seen before — presumably a ripe opportunity for the nation to finally kick foreign oil imports.

But there are gaps in the regulatory system. For instance, there’s no requirement to test water quality or aquifer levels before drilling and hydraulic fracturing activities occur, which means if there is suspected contamination it may never be proven. Thus, the industry’s no documented case of hydraulic fracturing contaminating drinking water mantra still echoes.

Hydraulic fracturing aside, there is the massive amount of activity that comes with more drilling and production spurred by the technology, and along with it more potential for environmental conflicts and competition for scarce resources in the Rockies — particularly for fresh water. It takes about 5 million gallons of water to “frack” one well.

At a University of Wyoming forum on hydraulic fracturing on Monday, some attendees questioned whether Wyoming’s leaders are too chummy with the industry to fix identified regulatory loopholes and generally look after non-industry interests with sufficient enthusiasm.

“All we lack is some leadership in this state to deal with these issues that are so important to (Wyoming citizens) who are not represented,” said Pete Jorgenson, a former Democratic Wyoming House Representative from Jackson.

For the past five years, Wyoming has averaged more than 5,000 hydraulic fracturing jobs annually. Because of fracking, Wyoming has the second largest proven reserves of natural gas in the United States. Almost no oil or natural gas is produced in Wyoming without hydraulic fracturing — which is the process of pumping a mixture of water, sand and a small volume of chemicals under pressure to break up gas- or oil-bearing rock deep underground.

“These plays in Wyoming all require hydraulic fracturing,” said QEP Energy Co.’s Rocky Mountain region general manager Vinnie Rigatti.

Vinnie and other industry and regulatory representatives gave detailed accounts of what they say is a sophisticated, well-regulated practice which poses a minimal risk to water and human health. Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission supervisor Tom Doll said “You have more concentration of bad chemicals under your kitchen sink than you’ll see going into a well in Wyoming.”

Yet problems persist, if not from the act of fracking then from the myriad other processes that oil and natural gas development presents on the surface. And as for drinking water contamination in Pavillion, regulatory officials concede only that “the jury is still out” about whether fracking has contributed.

For the jobs and energy security that fracking offers, much of the public remains suspicious about the secretive nature of the industry and say that a lack of transparency must be meant to hide something dangerous. And they see Wyoming’s regulatory officials as being too accommodating to industry, and overly reluctant to collaborate with federal agencies such as the EPA.

State Sen. Kit Jennings (R-Casper) told an EPA official at the forum that the state would like for the agency to help fund efforts to compile industry-supplied data and run models that help industry complete permitting requirements. But EPA officials said their budget continues to shrink while its duties continue to increase.

“By no way are we funded to cover what we’re supposed to for these UIC (underground injection control) programs,” said Ayn Schmit, unit chief of EPA Region 8’s watershed and aquifer protection program.

“Our budget is shrinking. We’re doing more with less,” Schmit added.

The Wyoming Rural Water program is funded by EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency’s Miles Edwards, a source water specialist, said small Wyoming communities in southeast Wyoming are clamoring for their assistance in anticipation that a Niobrara oil boom will sap water resources in an area already under consumptive restrictions.

Edwards said his and his co-worker’s positions are scheduled to expire shortly for lack of federal funding, as part of continued trimming of federal regulatory budgets.

“What is Wyoming to look forward to now?” said Edwards.

Jorgenson addressed EPA officials on a panel and offered them his sympathies; “Our delegation is trying to cut your budget to zero.”

Jorgenson said despite the fact that Wyoming enjoyed a large budget surplus for many years running, “I watched, for eight years, DEQ (Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality) request for more inspectors, and those were defeated with the obvious desire not to know what’s going on.”

Across the board, regulatory officials admitted they don’t have enough staff to do the amount of field inspections and enforcement as they’d like.

But the prognosis of regulatory oversight wasn’t all bad. Wyoming DEQ’s “Minor Source” emissions permitting program, for example, is leading the nation and serves as a model for other states — and the EPA — seeking to address air pollution from oil and gas production activities. Emissions from engines and well-bore venting present some very serious localized air quality issues — not the least of which is Wyoming’s wintertime ozone problem in the Upper Green River Basin.

And Wyoming was the first state in the nation to require disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals (although some chemicals are kept from the public as “trade secrets”). The U.S. Geological Survey is conducting an inventory of groundwater quality and volume in southeastern Wyoming in anticipation of a Niobrara oil boom in the region. (But no such survey is underway in other parts of the state where companies plan to drill more than 20,000 new natural gas wells.)

And, just as the EPA prepares a rule to address the use of diesel in hydraulic fracturing, a Halliburton official told the Wyoming audience that his company no longer uses diesel in any of its fracking operations. In fact, Halliburton is developing (presumably) safer constituents in products such as its “CleanStim” formula. So far, it’s not in use in the Rockies, according to Kumar Ramurthy, technology manager for Halliburton’s Rockies Business division.

The point is, there seem to be solutions and precautions available, but not yet in wide use, because there remains a reluctance  to put on the table full disclosure, a slower pace of development and a recognition that full-throttle development puts our other treasured resources as risk.

John Fenton, a Pavillion area rancher who claims to suffer from industry-induced water quality problems, said he’s seen industry and regulators make progress — but not without prodding.

“Make sure your voice is heard, no matter what it takes. That’s the most important tool you have in your arsenal,” Fenton told forum attendees.

— Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile editor-in-chief, has covered Wyoming’s energy industry for 13 years. He can be reached at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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