Heavily frac’d Colorado seeing earthquakes where they’ve never happened before. “Big booms, roars and shaking homes.”

Small earthquake recorded north of Glenwood Springs by David Mitchell, April 7, 2018, KDVR.com

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — An earthquake shook the ground near Glenwood Springs early Saturday morning.

The weak tremor, registering as a 2.7 magnitude quake, was recorded in the Flat Tops, roughly 18 miles from Glenwood Springs.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake happened just after 1:00 a.m. but only a handful of people – if any – could have possibly felt the effects.

It’s unclear whether any buildings sustained damage.

Colorado seeing earthquakes where they’ve never happened before by Keagan Harsha, April 4, 2018, KDVR.com

DENVER — Big booms, roars and shaking homes.

It sounds like something you would experience in San Francisco, but Colorado is also starting to see a growing number of earthquakes.

Most all of them are man-made.

Scientists at the University of Colorado have been closely studying a rash of earthquakes in Colorado and northern New Mexico over the past decade.

They say most have been caused by fluids pumped deep underground during oil and gas wastewater disposal. [How many caused directly by hydraulic fracturing? How long will industry, the politicians and quake enabling regulators mislead and lie to the public, insisting only waste water injection the problem?]

When oil is removed from the ground so is water. After drilling, the wastewater is injected back into the ground.

The problem is that it can seep into existing faults and that pressure can pry the rock apart and cause a fault to slide.

“There are many case studies so it’s very clear it’s happening,” said William Yeck, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden.

Injection-induced earthquakes in Colorado are primarily occurring in two parts of the state: In Weld County near Greeley and in the Raton Basin along the Colorado-New Mexico border.

A University of Colorado study recorded more than 1,800 earthquakes in the Raton Basin between 2008 and 2010 up to magnitude 4.3.

In Weld County near Greeley, thousands of earthquakes have also been reported over the past five years.

The largest induced earthquake to hit that region is a magnitude 3.4 that struck the night of May 31, 2014, causing minor damage to a handful of homes.

“It got your attention, let’s put it that way. We didn’t know what it was,” said Judy Dunn, a resident who felt the quake.

“There were no earthquakes in Weld County so in 2014 when that magnitude 3.4 earthquake happened it caught our attention and we went out to study it right away,” said Anne Sheehan, a CU geological sciences professor.

Sheehan and her team of scientists immediately began setting up seismometers in the area.

In the years since 2014 they have recorded hundreds of earthquakes.

“2014 was kind of the first in a sequence. The other earthquakes after that were smaller. There was a 2.6. There was a magnitude 3.0 last year,” said Sheehan.

Most of the earthquakes have been so small they can’t be felt. However, it’s the frequency of the earthquakes in a region that never experienced them that has many concerned.

Wastewater injection doesn’t cause earthquakes near all wells. Scientists are still trying to learn why some wells are more susceptible than others.

There are 45 wells in Weld County actively injecting wastewater into the ground.

“A lot of wastewater injection wells don’t have seismic activity around them and we haven’t really figured out why some do and some don’t,” said Jenny Nakai with CU.

Colorado experienced the nation’s very first induced earthquake in 1962 at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal north of Denver.

Chemical waste was being injected deep into the ground there. The injection triggered an earthquake strong enough to damage a nearby overpass.

About 1,300 smaller earthquakes were recorded in the area over the next five years.

Because of the recent spike in man-made earthquakes, engineers at CU are also working to help design new building materials that can better withstand seismic activity.

“There’s been a big debate in the building code community about whether we should be designing for earthquakes in places that are now seeing earthquakes. It’s a really hard question,” said Abbie Liel, an associate professor in civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU. [And who pays? Will the oil and gas industry be made to pay for the damages and costs they are causing?  Of course not, ordinary home owners and families will be forced to endure the escalating costs]

It’s a hard question because no one knows the long term impacts of wastewater injections.

“If wastewater injection increases in the region you could expect more earthquakes,” Yeck said.

Yeck is closely monitoring not only the rise in seismic activity in Weld County, but also the oil and gas industry’s response.

“I don’t think anyone wants more earthquakes,” he said.

After the 3.4 magnitude quake in 2014, many oil companies began sealing the bottoms of wells to try to prevent wastewater from leaking into basement rocks where quakes are triggered.

Many companies also spread injection wells farther apart. The measures do seem to be resulting in fewer earthquakes.

The state agency that regulates oil and gas can also take steps to shut down oil wells if it believes wastewater injections are generating earthquakes in the area.

“Right after the earthquake in 2014 we were getting quite a few per day. Now it’s a couple per month,” Sheehan said

That’s a reassuring trend for homeowners such as Dunn who have reaped the rewards of oil and gas development and don’t want to see the wells disappear.”

[Greed creates incredible stupidity]

“If you have to put up with something on your property we’ll put up with that,” Dunn said. “They make it worth our while. At least there’s something we can leave our kids some day.” [Ya, sure. Here you go kids, your inheritance: A bundle of rubble.]

Community fights massive drilling site planned near public school in low-income area, Oil and gas company originally planned to drill in largely white, middle-class  by Mark Hand, March 16, 2018, Think Progress

Paula Oransky never dreamed she could be fired for protesting against oil and gas wells near her home by Joel Dyer, March 29, 2018, Boulder Weekly

It was without question the best job Paula Oransky had ever had. The Colorado School of Mines graduate was making six figures, had a great benefits package and as far as she knew, was the only woman in her multi-billion dollar corporation, Martin Marietta Materials, who held the title of district sales manager. The job allowed Oransky and her family — a husband and two small children — to purchase a nice home in Boulder County, Colorado. Erie, to be exact. It was just the kind of small town community in which the couple, who met at age 16 and have been married for 15 years, always dreamed of living.

“We chose this place because we love the community,” she says. “We can walk our kids to the elementary school. We can ride our bikes to the rec center for T-ball games or downtown to get ice cream. We love living in a small town.”

But the Oransky family’s American dream was about to get turned upside down. On October 17, 2017, Paula Oransky was fired.

She says it all happened really fast. “They said, ‘We need your computer, we need your phone and you need to get out of here.’ They gave me the option of gathering up my personal things right then or coming back to get them. I was emotional. Tearing up, I just went home.”

So what was Oransky’s crime? What terrible thing had she done to deserve such an unceremonious dismissal? Was she bad at her job? No, it wasn’t that. In her three years with the company she had received nothing but good performance reviews and she had even recently received a substantial bonus. It turns out Oransky was fired for just one reason: She had participated in a lawful, nonviolent, public protest against the proposed drilling of new oil and gas wells near her home. And her employer believed that her protesting created a conflict of interest with her job.

You read that right. The mother of two was fired because she participated in a protest on September 27, 2017 in her own community on her own time at a public forum held by Anadarko Petroleum at the Erie Community Center to discuss its future drilling plans in the area, including 36 new wells within two miles of the Oransky home and her children’s elementary school. Anadarko’s meeting notice invited members of the community to attend. At no time during the protest did Oransky ever identify herself as an employee of Martin Marietta, either by her words or what she was wearing.

“It never crossed my mind that I could be fired for something I was doing on my own time,” she says. “I had no idea what the laws were. I just made sure that I wasn’t saying or wearing anything that would connect me to my employer because I thought that was the right thing to do. I was there as a citizen of the community.”

The protest was organized by a group known as “Erie Protectors,” a collection of mostly local residents concerned about the impacts of the massive oil and gas extraction operations that have and continue to inundate their community. It was the first oil and gas protest Oransky had ever participated in.

Gravel before family

During the Anadarko public forum where the protest occurred, Oransky says she recognized one of the representatives from the oil company. Martin Marietta sells certain materials and aggregates (think gravel) to Anadarko and other oil and gas companies for use in their construction of drilling pads and roads. As district sales manager at her company, Oransky says she doesn’t conduct direct sales to clients like Anadarko, rather she supervises the members of the sales force who do. Besides recognizing the Anadarko employee, Oransky was also aware that a video of the protest was being made for YouTube by Erie Protectors. For these reasons she felt it was quite likely that her employer would at some point be made aware that she had participated in the protest. So the next day, she voluntarily informed the top manager at the facility where she worked.

“When I initially came in and talked to Pat Walker about the protest, he asked me what I was protesting about and I explained about all the wells they were going to be drilling right around my house and how that brings up a lot of issues for me, health and safety, property values and things like that. He said something like, ‘Well, you know you certainly have a right to care about those things.’ I don’t remember his exact words but I remember leaving there feeling like it was no big deal. It never dawned on me that I’d be fired.”

Later that day Oransky also gave a heads up to HR about her participation in the protest. Again, she says, it seemed no big deal.

Oransky says there were a number of things that occurred which finally motivated her to protest the newly proposed wells that would be joining the hundreds of wells already in Erie.

For Erie residents, scenes such as this are becoming an everyday occurrence.

She recalls her fear when she heard about the home explosion in Firestone, just eight miles from her home, that killed two men and badly injured a woman. An Anadarko well 178 feet from the exploded Firestone home had been leaking odorless gas from one of its old flowlines. The home’s basement eventually filled with the gas and exploded, literally leveling the home. Gov. Hickenlooper ordered all such wells shut down and flowlines inspected. The most important information to come out of the Firestone tragedy was that there are thousands of miles of such flowlines, many underlying neighborhoods, and it isn’t possible for homeowners to know where they are or if they are in danger.

Oransky says there is an old abandoned well in her neighbor’s backyard, just two doors down. The state has documented leakage in such wells, and in more than one instance gas leaking from abandoned wells entered nearby homes and in some instances even caused explosions.

As if all this wasn’t frightening enough to the mother of two small children, in May of 2017, a battery of oil tanks similar to the ones sitting 500 feet from the Oransky home exploded just 10 miles away, killing an oil worker and injuring three others.

And finally, Oransky says she was outraged when she learned in June 2017 that the Anadarko-owned well and production platform a quarter mile from her home and right next to the Erie Recreation Center ball fields, where her children play T-ball and her husband softball, had leaked more than 5,000 gallons of toxic oil waste only a few feet away from the fields.

This is the well next to the Erie Rec Center ball fields that Oransky says spilled thousands of gallons of oil in 2017.

At that point she started doing her own research on the health and safety issues associated with oil and gas operations near homes.

She became extremely worried about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) the wells emit, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. She was particularly concerned with how such poisons might harm her 4-year-old daughter, who was born two months premature, suffers from a congenital respiratory disorder and sometimes needs an inhaler to help her breath.

Her fears are well founded.

A 2013 joint study of Erie’s air quality conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that more than half of the VOCs linked to dangerous ground-level ozone in her community are tied directly to oil and gas activity. Ground-level ozone is especially dangerous to persons with respiratory conditions, particular the elderly and the young, like her daughter.

And then Anadarko announced it would be drilling many more wells in Erie. It was the final straw for a mom who loves her family and her community.

Paula Oransky and her two children walking near the wells and production platform located approximately 500 feet from their home.

“I don’t consider myself an activist,” Oransky says. “I just think I’m a concerned and well-educated citizen. I really believe in the value of community. I know all my neighbors. Thats how I want to live.”

Oransky may have been emotional and tearing up when she got fired, but by the time she got home a different emotion had taken hold.

“It made me angry,” she says. “I felt like I was living in communist Russia. I wouldn’t change my actions. My family, their health, protecting them is more important than anything. They’re more important than anything else. I came home [from getting fired] and I thought this is bullshit. It made me more angry that somebody had told me, ‘No, you can’t protect your family,’ and ‘No, your job is more important than your family.’ I asked them, ‘What did I do wrong and can’t we talk about this?’ They never asked me why I was protesting, for them it was just about business. They never asked me if there were health issues or if I was an environmentalist or anything like that.”

The lawsuit

Oransky has hired the Denver firm of Springer and Steinberg to represent her in a lawsuit against Martin Marietta. Her suit claims that she was terminated “without due process and in retaliation for her lawful off-work exercise of her state and federal constitutional rights of free speech, assembly, and petition and in violation of state law on employee off-job activities.” She isn’t trying to get her job back.

“I wouldn’t want to work at a place that doesn’t value their employees’ right to be active in their own community,” she says.

Oransky’s lawsuit is asking for a jury to decide on how she should be compensated for what the suit calls the “extreme and outrageous behavior” of Martin Marietta Materials. At least some of the potential injuries to the Oransky family seem pretty self-evident.

She explains, “I was the primary breadwinner. The majority of the income we bring in as a family was from me. And I carried all the benefits. We have Medicaid, we qualify for that now. We’re running through our savings and my husband took a second job. They’re both part-time in the healthcare industry and one is in Winter Park. So no benefits, and he has to travel. It’s hard but we try to be positive about it.”

As for her future in the only industry she’s ever worked?

“This is an industry where everyone knows everyone and everyone talks to everyone and this is the kind of thing that will make it difficult for me in the future,” she says. “So yes, this will definitely effect my future earning power.”

For most of us, we like to think that what we do on our own time is of no concern to our employer, and for the most part that’s true. But Colorado employment law has what is called the “exception to the exception” and that, according to documents filed in the case, is what Martin Marietta is banking on in defense of its firing of Oransky.

The corporation does not dispute the fact that it fired Oransky because of her actions at the oil and gas protest on her own time in her own community. Rather, it claims that her protesting Anadarko was a conflict of interest to her job because the oil giant and other industry peers sometimes purchase construction materials from Martin and therefore the company had the legal right to fire her under state law.

So here’s an abbreviated version of Colorado’s state labor law in layman’s terms.

Colorado is an at-will employment state. That means an employer can fire an employee at any time for any reason at all, or even for no reason at all, so long as it is not for an illegal reason.

So there you have it. Any company can fire anyone for any reason except an illegal reason, such as firing a person for doing perfectly legal things on their own time off work premises.

State statute C.R.S. 24-34-402.5 titled “Unlawful prohibition of legal activities as a condition of employment” states:

“It shall be a discriminatory or unfair employment practice for an employer to terminate the employment of any employee due to that employee’s engaging in any lawful activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours.”

That is the “exception,” the illegal reason for a person being fired in Colorado. But here is the “exception to the exception.” It’s illegal to fire an employee for doing legal things on their own time off of the work site except when it is deemed necessary “to avoid a conflict of interest with any responsibilities to the employer or the appearance of such a conflict of interest.”

Martin Marietta Materials fired Oransky because it claims her participation in the protest that disrupted its sometimes-customer Anadarko Petroleum’s forum was a conflict of interest with her job.

In a document titled “Defendant Martin Marietta Materials, Inc.’s Original Answer,” which has been filed in the lawsuit, it states that “Plaintiff’s [Oransky’s] conduct at the public meeting clearly conflicted with her obligations as Defendant’s [Martin Marietta’s] sales employee. Plantiff’s conduct at the public forum certainly reflects on Plaintiff’s job performance.”

Oransky’s case is before the United States District Court for the District of Colorado.

Could you be next

Even while she is fighting in court, Oransky continues the fight for her family and her community, though she admits she’s contemplated moving on.

“We’ve thought about moving because of the drilling. I think that’s fair to say for everyone in town who has hundreds of wells near them. It makes me angry to think about it. Both me and my husband come from working class families. We’ve worked hard to get what we have. I’m the daughter of an immigrant. We worked our way through college,” she says.

“I’m pretty conservative in some areas, but not when it comes to corporations having the power over a community, not when there are health impacts. A corporation shouldn’t be able to negatively impact a community that may or may not even have a voice. When corporations have power over people and it’s affecting their health, that’s not an inconvenience, it’s a health issue. There has to be a better way.”

Erie’s neighborhoods have been inundated by wells which researchers claim have harmed the community’s air quality and caused an increase in dangerous ground level ozone.

What happens in this case could set an important precedent for everyone on the Front Range and around the state. Simply put, if Oransky can be fired for simply protesting against the oil and gas industry in her own neighborhood on her own time, so can you. Martin Marietta’s claims imply that if your employer makes money in any direct or even indirect way from the oil and gas industry, then your employer, for all intents and purposes, owns you 24 hours a day, seven day a week, every day of the year when it comes to your rights of free speech, protest and assembly regarding the oil and gas industry. Think about the implications. Thousands of businesses could fall into that category.

If this newspaper were to sign an advertising contract with an oil and gas company, could I be legally fired for protesting in my own neighborhood on my own time if that company proposed drilling a well across the street from my home and our owner decided my actions could cause the paper to lose business?

A few years back, I interviewed a woman who lived in a low-income housing complex in Greeley who was protesting a massive drilling project going in just a few feet from where her children lived and played. She cleaned hotel rooms for a living, and nearly every hotel room in town was occupied by oil and gas roughnecks up from Oklahoma and Texas to work the rigs. Could she have been fired by her employer for protesting?

How about the waitress at a restaurant whose business has increased due to the rig workers coming in for lunch or dinner? Has she now lost her constitutional rights to free speech and protest because her boss is afraid she’ll be recognized and the workers will go elsewhere for their meals?

There are literally thousands of companies that do business with the oil and gas industry in one way or another and those businesses have tens if not hundreds of thousands of employees. Where does it stop?

If the person who supervises someone else who actually sells gravel to Anadarko Petroleum can be fired for protesting wells that could harm her family on her own time in her own community, can the person who sells the shovel or rents the machine to move the gravel be fired for the same infraction, speaking their mind?

This case is far bigger than just Paula Oransky, and she understands that. “My situation certainly sent a message. I’m sure it’s had a chilling effect on anyone who may have concerns about oil and gas and its impacts,” she says.

“Regardless of who you work for, you should be able to have an opinion, and if that opinion is different than the corporation’s public opinion or your boss’s opinion or the CEO’s opinion, that should be OK. The corporation doesn’t own you 24/7, the company doesn’t own you 24/7.”

Oil and gas companies leaving without cleaning up sites; state believes problem will get worse by Joe St George, February 26, 2018, KDVR.com

DENVER — You might be used to seeing abandoned tools and farm equipment on the side of the road — but abandoned oil and gas sites?

Adams County resident Barber Binder says what is happening in and around her neighborhood is “unconscionable.”

“This is a potential disaster waiting to happen in my opinion,” Binder said.

Binder is talking about an orphan oil and gas well location near Route 7 and Havana Road in Adams County where weeds are growing, rust is accumulating, liquor bottles are on the ground, no emergency contact information is posted, and even a shed door housing essential equipment is wide open with no lock.

In July, the state cited the operator for several violations, including ones threatening the environment. But seven months later, the location remains in disarray.

The location is run by Tudex, a subsidiary of Tudor, an Energy Company based in Canada.

In September 2016, Tudex wrote a letter to shareholders saying it was closing.

“Tudex was pretty much unresponsive beginning in 2016,” said Matt Lepore, the outgoing executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is charged with regulating the industry in the state.

Lepore said Tudex left Colorado without much notice nor without much fear of consequence.

Tudex left without inspecting flow lines, without paying $1.6 million in fines, without reclaiming sites and without cleaning up cited violations.

For Lepore, the story of Tudex is a common one. The state has created a term for such activity: An orphan well.

Lepore estimates around 250 orphan wells exist in Colorado but there might be more.

“We suspect because of our historic operations in the state that there is a similar number that we haven’t discovered,” Lepore said.

Because the state is responsible for any orphan well, it is responsible for cleanup and reclamation. However, the state budget only allows for a few cleanups each year.

“We can do like 10 or 12 a year,” Lepore said. “The cost to plug abandon, reclaim, clean up any spilled material averaged over a lot over a lot of years is $80,000.”

Lepore also estimates the situation might only continue to get worse in the years to come.

“I worry about the number of future orphan wells,” said Lepore, who will step down from his position on Friday.

“To me, the orphan well situation is a little like a hurricane sitting offshore and you know it’s out there and you know it’s coming ashore, you just don’t know if its going to be a tropical storm or a Category 5.”

Lepore discussed several options for lawmakers to try to prevent oil and gas companies from leaving.

“The bonds need to be higher,” Lepore said.

For instance, when Tudex started its operations in Colorado, it posted $120,000 in bonds as a security deposit.

When it left, the state took that money. Tudex owed the state $1.6 million in fines in 2017. Is $120,000 in bonds enough to get a company to do the right thing?

As for the Adams County location, Lepore said the Tudex locations, despite appearance and violations, pose no immediate safety risk to the public.

Lepore said the state has put a lock on the shed door housing equipment.

Finder hopes the state takes action soon.

“The state needs to come in an clean this up right away,” Finder said.

Nearly 40 people protest oil and gas well site near Bella Romero Academyby Tommy Wood, February 17, 2018, The Greeley Tribune
Siena Scornavacco, 10, chants with some of her classmates during a small protest at Bella Romero Academy 4-8 Campus in east Greeley. Siena was among several parents and students from Lafayette protesting the oil wells planned near Bella the campus.


» June 2016: Weld County commissioners approved the site.

» April 2017: Environmental groups and Greeley residents sued the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to revoke the site’s permits.

» January 2018: The Greeley-Evans School District 6 Board of Education passed a resolution opposing the construction of the site and any new oil and gas development within 2,000 feet of its schools.

The well site slightly more than 1,000 feet south from Bella Romero Academy’s fourth-through-eighth grade campus was devoid of workers and construction activity about 3:45 p.m. on a sunny, chilly Friday.

Nearly 40 people lined the road in front of the school, though, carrying signs with slogans such as “fracking is the slow killer” and chanting “Don’t frack our schools.”

They came from Greeley, Fort Collins and as far away as Lafayette to protest the well site, construction of which began earlier in February despite ongoing litigation aimed at revoking its permits. The well site is outside the state-mandated setback limit of 1,000 feet, but it has attracted controversy because of its 24-well size and proximity to Bella Romero. Accusations of racism also have been directed at the company responsible, Extraction Oil and Gas, and at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Extraction moved a well site planned near Frontier Academy, which is 73.6 percent white, after area business owners and parents voiced similar concerns. Bella Romero is 82.2 percent Latino.

Extraction spokesman Brian Cain said in a statement the company “plans to utilize many of the innovative technologies we have introduced to our industry that ensure the minimization or elimination of impacts from construction and development, as well as increasing safety.”

When students got out of school Friday afternoon, some of them regarded the protesters with quizzical looks. Some cheered. Others joined in the chants.

“They’re sticking up for us,” said Elizabeth Martinez, an eighth-grader at Bella Romero.

As parents picked up their kids, they honked their car horns in support and gave the protesters thumbs-up through their windows. “We are with them,” said Blanca Villa, whose son is in seventh grade at Bella Romero. “It’s not good for our kids or anybody who lives near here. I’m glad (the protesters) are here.”

Emmy Scott, the president of the University of Northern Colorado Earth Guardians student group, was there with her group gathering signatures for a petition opposing the wells. She said she’s going to take it to campus next week to attract more support.

“We stand for protecting our community, protecting our kids, protecting the environment,” Scott said. “We like to be a voice for those who don’t have one.”

Of course, nothing in Greeley is simple, especially oil and gas development. When one parent drove away after picking up her kids, she rolled down her window and shouted, “Fracking gives us jobs!” [Not for long! And are the few who got jobs for a while going to donate all their savings and sells their homes, vehicles and toys to pay to clean up what industry is refusing to?]

Wells left behind by industry threaten to overwhelm Western states by Joshua Zaffos, Jan. 16, 2018, High Country News

In March 2015, Joe MacLaren, a state oil and gas inspector in Colorado, drove out to the Taylor 3 oil well near the tiny town of Hesperus, in the southwestern corner of the state. He found an entire checklist of violations. Atom Petroleum, a Texas-based company, had bought out more than 50 oil and gas wells after the company that drilled them went bankrupt. Now, Atom was pumping oil from those wells, but Taylor 3 was leaking crude, and it was missing required signage as well as screens on infrastructure to keep birds away from toxic gunk. Worse, the company had not performed safety tests to ensure the well wasn’t leaking fluids underground.

Over the following months, the state slapped Atom with fines, performed follow-up inspections, and demanded a $360,000 bond to cover the cost of shutting down the wells, just in case Atom — hardly proving itself to operate in a trustworthy manner — didn’t clean up its act.

Indeed, the list of violations MacLaren and others discovered kept growing, yet Atom kept on pumping oil and gas, and did not pay fines or put up the $360,000 bond. So in 2016, the state took a rare step: It revoked the company’s drilling permit. Atom’s business, it said, was no longer welcome in Colorado.

Atom didn’t bother to follow through on one last important obligation either. When companies cease production, they are supposed to plug wells with cement to reduce the risk of leaks, and to restore vegetation and wildlife habitat aboveground. They recoup their bonds if they do so, whereas if they don’t, the state cashes them. In this case, Atom flouted its responsibility to plug and reclaim its wells, leaving the state to clean up its mess. Colorado did claim a $60,000 bond Atom posted when it first started operating, but the cleanup could cost taxpayers 10 times that.

The 50 or so wells Atom left behind comprise Colorado’s largest-ever “orphaned well” case, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. But it’s not an isolated problem. Companies that go out of business, become bankrupt, or, like Atom, simply ignore the rules, tend to skip out on cleanup and land restoration. And since bond amounts set by states and the federal government rarely if ever cover real-world cleanup costs, it can be cheaper for a company to forfeit a bond than to follow reclamation rules.

Orphaned wells are more likely than properly plugged “abandoned” wells to leak pollutants, including methane gas, which can contaminate groundwater and even trigger explosions. So it’s troubling that the number of such wells in the West has soared. A downturn in energy prices starting back in 2008 has led energy companies to orphan thousands of wells across Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming. States are struggling even to tally them, let alone remediate them. Officially, Colorado has 244 orphaned wells on its books, but state officials estimate another 400 have yet to be located. And with a new drilling boom tapping deep shale formations along Colorado’s urban Front Range, some worry that the next bust will saddle the public with thousands more.

On state and private land, major energy corporations typically explore and drill for oil and gas across large fields and then sell parcels to smaller operators when production dips. The little guys can still turn profits, just not at the margins big corporations need to satisfy shareholders.

But small companies tend to have shakier financing and are therefore more vulnerable to market swings. When gas prices plunged starting in 2008, it bankrupted many small companies producing marginal amounts of methane from coal seams, and thousands of coalbed methane wells were orphaned.

In Wyoming, the problem reached epidemic proportions. In 2014, under Republican Gov. Matt Mead, the state implemented an aggressive strategy to identify and plug orphan wells. To hedge against future busts, the state also significantly hiked the bonds companies must put up before drilling. It based those increases partly on well depth, since the deeper shale oil and gas wells now being targeted are much more expensive to reclaim than conventional shallow wells. Wyoming has since reclaimed 1,700 sites on state and private lands, using taxes and royalties paid by industry to chip away at the backlog caused by the spike in orphaned wells and insufficient bond funds. But it has also identified nearly 4,600 more orphaned wells — and that’s just on state and private lands.

“Wyoming is more ahead of the game than other states,” says Jill Morrison, director of the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council. Even so, the state “can’t keep up,” she says, and the higher bond rates still don’t fully cover reclamation costs when a company orphans its wells. Reclamation on federal lands in Wyoming, where there are thousands of additional orphaned wells, has been even slower.

In Colorado, the state currently uses bonds and revenue from fines to cover cleanup costs for orphans. But that generates less than $850,000 a year, so the state has only plugged and reclaimed 52 orphaned wells since 2013, at an average cost of $82,500 each. According to a recent state analysis, dealing with all 244 of its known orphans will cost an estimated $5.3 million annually over the next five years.

This August, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper proposed several tougher rules for monitoring and reclaiming both orphaned and properly plugged wells. The announcement followed a deadly house explosion in a north Denver suburb last April, which elevated concern about abandoned wells of all kinds since it was caused by a severed methane gas flow line from a properly plugged and sealed well. Hickenlooper’s reforms included creating a fund that would be used to eliminate the state’s orphaned-well backlog within a decade. It would be bankrolled by energy companies, possibly through a property-tax increase, and could also pay for services like in-home methane monitors for neighborhoods that are next to or even on top of old wells.

Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, acknowledges the need to “get ahead of a potential problem,” but questions whether new taxes are the solution. Instead, she says, the state could direct existing tax revenues to the issue, or create a voluntary program for companies to help plug and reclaim wells. In Oklahoma, for instance, companies can choose to divert 1 cent for every $100 of oil and gas they produce to a program that restores orphaned wells. The state claims that 95 percent of operators participate and the program has restored 16,000 well sites since 1994.

State Rep. Mike Foote, a Boulder County Democrat, says he would like to see higher bond rates in Colorado, but he doesn’t expect much cooperation from state Republicans. In a letter to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, two state GOP leaders expressed concern over Hickenlooper’s proposal for an orphan-well fund and disagreed with his portrayal of the issue as a “vast” problem. But without more money and regulatory muscle, Foote says, the state is not just ducking the current problem; it’s inviting future calamity.

Since the deadly Denver house explosion last spring, watchdogs have documented an alarming number of poorly monitored abandoned wells and flow lines beneath Front Range communities. Some of this potentially perilous infrastructure lies directly beneath neighborhoods. With several small companies, some already cited for violations, currently drilling and applying to drill for oil and gas in Boulder and neighboring counties, Foote and others fear the next price crash could create a hazardous landscape rife with orphaned wells. And dealing with those wells could be even more complicated than before, because industry is now tapping deep shale formations, where wells are much more difficult and expensive to plug, reclaim, and inspect.

According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, there are currently 63 financially “distressed” operators in the state, who collectively own almost 4,000 wells. These companies have either missed required safety tests or aren’t producing much, signs that they may be running out of money and therefore more likely to abandon their sites. If even a fraction of those companies become deadbeats, the state’s problems will quickly multiply. Without broad action, says Foote, “It’s a disaster waiting to happen.” [Take a close look at Alberta, Canada for nice clean example of the disaster happening wide scale]

Oil and gas industry spills increased by 17 percent around Colorado last year, Conservation Colorado environmental group urges state lawmakers to act by Bruce Finley, January 12, 2018, The Denver Post

Oil and gas spills across Colorado increased in 2017 after two years of decline, with companies reporting nearly a dozen mishaps per week — including numerous leaks along pipelines and at least six cases in which hydrocarbons flowed directly into waterways.

A review of the latest state data also shows 22 incidents under investigation in which gas apparently contaminated domestic water wells.

Companies reported 619 spills in 2017, state data show. Altogether, companies spilled more than 93,000 gallons of oil into soil, groundwater and streams. They also spilled more than 506,000 gallons of “produced water,” waste from drilling and hydraulic fracturing that emerges from deep underground and contains chemicals.

That number of spills reflects a 17 percent increase above the 529 spills reported in 2016, state data show. Total annual spills remained lower than the 792 spills in 2014 and 624 in 2015.

“We have concerns about any oil/produced water spill, which is why we have a regulatory system set up to ensure such spills are reported, investigated and cleaned up,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources spokesman Todd Hartman said.

Refer also to:

Who could ever have guessed that pulverizing shale could cause any problems at all?

Eagle Ford Region Hit With Fourth Earthquake in 2018

This morning, a small earthquake went relatively unnoticed in rural Karnes County, some 50 miles southeast of San Antonio. Local law enforcement said they didn’t feel it — and they certainly didn’t receive calls reporting damage.

But while few felt the 3.1 magnitude quake rumbling underfoot, its impossible to dismiss the significance of yet another earthquake in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale region.

This is the fourth minor earthquake recorded in this region in 2018. The other three quakes — occurring in both Karnes and Wilson counties — took place over a a four-day period alone. Compare that to 2017, which only saw two quakes in Eagle Ford, and 2016 which saw zero.

Texas doesn’t sit on a fault line. Based on the state’s geologic makeup, there’s no natural reason these counties should be shaking — the cracks in the Earth’s crust that run under Texas haven’t shifted in 300 million years. Scientists have instead attributed these newer earthquakes to human activity, especially the kind that relies on Eagle Ford’s fossil-rich sedimentary rocks.

Researchers with U.S. Geological Survey believe recent drilling from the oil and gas industry has introduced earthquakes to Texas and surrounding oil-rich states. They argue that fracking, the process of drilling into the earth and using a high-pressure water mixture to extract natural gas, disrupts the fault lines enough to start an earthquake.

And the size of these earthquakes is growing. Sure, Karnes County’s 3.1 is minor hiccup compared to the quake that rocked Mexico City this summer, but it’s larger than the region’s past shakes.

According to a recent study USGS published with help from Southern Methodist University researchers, the number of earthquakes with magnitude greater than 3(out of 10) in Texas has increased from 2 to 12 per year

2018 02 16: Texas Earthquakes Remain Years After Injection Wells Close

The findings indicate that shutting down injection wells in reaction to earthquakes may not have the desired effect of immediately stopping them.

… Researchers say the phenomenon isn’t unprecedented: A similar outcome occurred near Denver in the 1960s.

2018 02 19: Row over Earthquakes Caused by Shell & Exxon’s Operations Escalates in Holland

2018 02 21: Newsweek: Kansas is shaking, Earthquakes tied to oil and gas prodution have skyrocketed in the state

Prior to 2012, Kansas had one earthquake over several decades. But since then, the state has experienced a dramatic increase in such events.

2018 03 02: Nasty! Judge grants stays in Oklahoma earthquake lawsuits

2018 03 04: Two 4.2 earthquakes recorded Sunday NE of Enid; damage reported
Home damaged in Breckenridge area of Garfield County

2018 03 08: The ground has been shaking in Kansas. What’s causing these earthquakes?

2018 04 07: Large 4.6 Magnitude Earthquake Recorded In Garfield County, Oklahoma Multiple Earthquakes Recorded In Oklahoma Saturday

GARFIELD COUNTY, Oklahoma – A 4.6 magnitude earthquake was reported in Garfield County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.  Officials report the earthquake was centered near Perry around 7:16 a.m. The quake was approximately 3 miles in depth.Several residents reported feeling the earthquake across a wide area in the state.

The earthquake’s epicenter was 4 miles east-southeast of Covington, 8 miles east-northeast of Douglas, 11 miles south-southeast of Garber, and 56 miles north of Oklahoma City.

A 3.1 magnitude earthquake was also recorded Saturday morning in Oklahoma County. The quake struck at approximately 11:21 a.m. approximately 3 miles east-northeast of Edmond, and 15 miles north-northwest of Oklahoma City. No injuries have been reported from either earthquake.

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