University of Cincinnati Geologists Identify Sources of Methane, Powerful Greenhouse Gas, in Ohio, #Colorado and Texas

Photo via @bberwyn
Photo via @bberwyn

Here’s the release from the University of Cincinnati (M.B. Reilly):

Methane comes from various sources, like landfills, bacterial processes in water, cattle and fracking. In testing methane sources at three national sites, University of Cincinnati geologists found no evidence fracking affected methane concentrations in groundwater in Ohio. At sites in Colorado and Texas, methane sources were found to be mixed, divided between fracking, cattle and/or landfills.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati recently studied the sources of methane at three sites across the nation in order to better understand this greenhouse gas, which is much more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than is carbon dioxide.

The UC team, led by Amy Townsend-Small, assistant professor of geology, identified sources for methane in Carroll County, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; and Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, by means of an analysis technique that consists of measuring carbon and hydrogen stable isotopes (isotopic composition). This approach provides a signature indicating whether methane is coming from, say, natural gas extraction (fracking), organic/biologic decay, or the natural digestive processes of cattle.

Said Townsend-Small, “This is an analysis technique that provides answers regarding key questions as to specific sources for methane emissions. With isotopic composition analysis, it’s possible to tell whether the source is fracking or biogenic processes (like bacterial decomposition in landfills or algae-filled water). It’s a laborious technique to implement, but its use makes it possible to trace and attribute the source of methane production.”

[…]

Niobrara Shale Denver Julesberg Basin
Niobrara Shale Denver Julesberg Basin

MONITORING FRACKING IN COLORADO AND TEXAS
In the Denver Basin, which encompasses the city of Denver and the surrounding region, Townsend-Small and her team examined about 200 methane samples in 2014, collecting airborne measurements via aircraft as well as measuring methane levels on the ground, site by site.

Collection efforts focused on both atmospheric data and ground-level, site-specific samples in order to help ensure accuracy via cross checking of results.

In the Denver region, the isotopic composition signatures of the samples collected demonstrated that up to 50 percent of methane emissions in the region were from agricultural practices (cattle) and/or landfill sources, with the other half (about 50 percent) coming from fracking for natural gas.

Study: Methane In Colorado Water Isn’t Always From Oil Wells — CBS Denver

Niobrara Shale Denver Julesberg Basin
Niobrara Shale Denver Julesberg Basin

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via CBS Denver:

Fewer than 5 percent of the region’s water wells that were checked for methane pollution had been tainted by oil and gas leaks, according to a study released Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

About 18 percent had methane that came from coal seams that underlie the area, the researchers said.

The other wells either had methane that couldn’t be definitively traced or had no detectable methane at all…

“I think it’s important for people to realize that being able to light your tap water on fire in many cases is a natural occurrence,” said Owen Sherwood, lead author of the study and a research associate at the University of Colorado.

“However, accidents do happen, leaks do happen,” he said.

The study looked only at the Denver-Julesburg Basin, an energy-rich formation in northeastern Colorado. The findings don’t necessarily apply to other formations because of differences in geology, drilling history and regulation, Sherwood said.

The $12 million study was funded by the National Science Foundation and got no money from the energy industry, Sherwood said.

Sherwood and five other researchers reviewed public records from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s energy regulator, from 1988 to 2014.

The records showed that 924 individual water wells were tested for methane after residents complained about pollution. Of those wells, 593 had detectable levels of methane, including 169 with methane that could be traced to coal beds and 42 with methane that could be traced to oil and gas production.

Researchers can distinguish between the two because they have distinct chemical footprints, Sherwood said. Methane from oil and gas production is also mixed with ethane, propane and butane, he said.

If the study couldn’t determine the source of the methane, it was usually because regulators hadn’t finished their investigation at the time the researchers retrieved the data in 2014, or because the case was so old that the available technology couldn’t identify the source.

Regardless of the source, the methane gets into water wells by first infiltrating an aquifer, a natural underground water reservoir, Sherwood said. It’s then drawn up into the well.

Researchers were able to trace groundwater methane pollution to a leak in a specific oil or gas well in 11 instances. In each case, the culprit was the surface casing — the lining inside the upper part of the well bore — in an older petroleum well drilled under now-obsolete rules, Sherwood said.

In all 11 instances, the well casing was too shallow by current standards for new wells. Six of those wells also had leaks in the casings.

The current rules, adopted in the mid-1990s, require the surface casing to extend 50 feet below the deepest aquifer in some areas. In the Denver-Julesburg Basin, that can be as deep as 1,200 feet, Sherwood said.

In none of those 11 instances could the leak be attributed to hydraulic fracturing, Sherwood said. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, injects water, sand and chemicals into a well bore to break open underground formations and release oil and gas.

In 2010, drilling companies began high-volume fracking, injecting the fluids perhaps 20 times at different locations in the same well, compared with three or four times under previous practice, Sherwood said.

But the number of documented incidents of water wells polluted by methane from oil and gas production each year didn’t change, he said.

“It’s relatively rare, a rate of about two cases a year” since 2000, Sherwood said.

Rob Jackson, an earth sciences professor at Stanford University who wasn’t involved in the research, said he thinks the study is sound, although he said a potential weakness is whether water sampling techniques were consistent over the years covered.

“I still like what they’ve done,” he said. The study highlights the importance of oil and gas well casing, he said.

From InsideClimateNews.org (Neela Banerjee):

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, is the latest to pinpoint the sources and pathways of methane reported in residential drinking water near drilling sites, a concern to many communities as the fracking boom has spread across the country.

Environmental activists have asserted that fracking opens fissures underground along which methane, the main ingredient in natural gas, migrates from fossil fuel reservoirs into aquifers. Industry has maintained that residents’ water already contained methane before oil and gas activity began.

The Colorado study builds on several others published in the last few years, examining water from Texas to Pennsylvania. They all indicate methane can bleed from oil and gas wells if the metal casings inside the wellbore are not cemented completely or sealed deep enough underground.

“The bottom line here is that industry has denied any stray gas contamination: that whenever we have methane in a well, it always preexisting,” said Avner Vengosh, professor of earth and ocean sciences at Duke University, who read the paper but was not involved in the study. “The merit of this is that it’s a different oil and gas basin, a different approach, and it’s saying that stray gas could happen.”

[…]

All 11 wells with barrier failure were drilled before 1993 and did not undergo high-volume fracking and horizontal drilling. Further, they were not subject to new regulations adopted by Colorado in 1993 that set more stringent standards for cement casings inside new oil and gas wells.

Colorado’s adoption of tougher well-construction standards does not reflect national practices, however. Because Congress banned national regulation of fracking under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, standards for water and air protection around oil and gas sites vary by state.

There are also no laws governing the kind of cement that should be used. The cement used to hold the casings in place has to be “competent,” said Dominic DiGiulio, a visiting scholar at Stanford University and retired scientist from the Environmental Protection Agency. Petroleum engineers who work for the drilling company test the cement in a well and determine whether the seal is durable. But not every well is tested.

Industry has resisted efforts to standardize testing of the cement bond in fracked wells. The Bureau of Land Management’s draft fracking rules, recently struck down by a federal appeals court, call for testing the cement in fracked wells. The oil and gas industry has argued that it would be prohibitively expensive, estimating that would cost 20 times greater than the federal government has estimated.

Ensuring the integrity of the wellbore casing and cement job “isn’t a technical issue but a financial issue,” DiGiulio said. “The petroleum industry knows this technology but it’s not done on every single well, and that gets down to cost.”

Here’s the release from the University of Colorado:

The rate of groundwater contamination due to natural gas leakage from oil and gas wells has remained largely unchanged in northeastern Colorado’s Denver-Julesburg Basin since 2001, according to a new University of Colorado Boulder study based on public records and historical data.

The results also suggest that microbially-generated methane, rather than high-volume hydraulic fracturing, is the primary source of dissolved methane present in the area’s groundwater. Old and faulty oil and gas wells contribute a smaller percentage, with the risk of groundwater contamination due to a leak estimated to be between 0.12 percent of all the water wells in the region to 4.5 percent of the water wells that were tested.

Oil and gas development — particularly the introduction of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracking — has generated public concern in Colorado over potential groundwater contamination due to the possibility of leakage from oil and gas wells. When present, natural gas can turn drinking water flammable, a safety hazard observed in numerous historical cases.

The researchers sifted through over 25 years of publically-available historical information in order to determine the sources and occurrence rate of methane and other gases in groundwater. All of the data were sourced exclusively from open records maintained by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a regulatory division of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

The study was funded entirely by the National Science Foundation’s AirWaterGas Sustainability Research Network, which is based in Boulder, Colorado.

“The ability to do this kind of far-reaching impact study using public domain data is key,” said Owen Sherwood, a research associate with the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at CU Boulder and lead author of the new research. “This study highlights the immense value of a large, continuously updated and publically accessible geochemical database maintained by a regulatory agency.”

In data dating back as far as 1988, dissolved methane was discovered in 523 of the 924 water wells sampled, a rate of about 64 percent. However, based on a geochemical analysis, the researchers determined that 95.5 percent of that methane was generated by naturally-occurring microbial processes, a result of proximity to shallow coal seams criss-crossing northeastern Colorado.

Aside from the microbial methane, oil and gas wells have been found to leak methane and other natural gases such as propane and butane due to faulty or unsuitably shallow surface casings. Older gas wells built as far back as the 1970s were typically cased to a depth of approximately 300 feet, leaving the state’s deepest water aquifers unprotected from potential gas leaks. Updated regulatory standards have since required that new wells be cased far deeper and a number of older wells are currently being repaired.

Between 2001 and 2014 (the last year of complete data), dissolved gas that could be directly linked to deep oil- and gas-bearing formations affected 42 water wells in 32 separate incident cases, a rate of about two cases per year. That rate did not change after the introduction of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state in 2010. Eleven of those cases could be linked to older, vertical wells drilled before 1993. The remaining 21 cases were either settled privately with the landowner, or remain unresolved due to lack of data.

“This study incorporates a tremendous amount of hard data, but also considers individual case narratives so that we can see what happened in each particular instance of natural gas contamination,” said Joseph Ryan, a professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering at CU Boulder and a co-author of the new study. “It’s important to remember the human impact of this issue across the state.”

The new research is believed to be the most comprehensive study to date on the prevalence and sources of groundwater methane in Colorado using only public data. Previous studies have sampled fewer oil and gas sites and/or relied on data provided by industry stakeholders.

Directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing graphic via Al Granberg
Directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing graphic via Al Granberg

#Colorado’s battle over regulating fracking shifts to ballot — the Fort Collins Coloradoan

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation
Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From the Associated Press (Dan Elliott) via the Fort Collins Coloradoan:

Colorado’s battle over who should regulate fracking — and how much — now shifts to the November election after the state Supreme Court overturned attempts by local governments to impose their own rules.

The court ruled Monday that a ban on fracking in Longmont and a five-year moratorium in Fort Collins are invalid because they conflict with state law. State officials and the industry argued the state has the primary authority to regulate energy, not local governments.

It wasn’t the end of the debate, however. Coloradans face a loud and fierce campaign over fracking this fall if activists succeed in getting any constitutional amendments on the ballot to restrict oil and gas drilling or give local governments the authority to do so.

“We’re taking them as a serious threat to responsible oil and gas development in the state of Colorado,” said Karen Crummy, a spokeswoman for an industry-backed group called Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence.

“We consider all of these measures to be a ban on fracking,” Crummy said. “We’re going to fight.”

Backers of the proposed constitutional amendments also vow a fight, saying Monday’s ruling injects a sense of urgency into their cause.

“It can only help us because it shows that communities don’t have many rights right now when industry wants to drill,” said Tricia Olson of Yes for Health and Safety over Fracking, which hopes to get two measures on the ballot.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has long been a contentious issue in Colorado, the nation’s No. 7 energy-producing state. Fracking injects a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to crack open formations and make it easier to recover oil and gas.

Combined with other drilling techniques, it opened up previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves and boosted the economy, although low oil prices have led to widespread layoffs and a steep decline in drilling.

Critics worry about danger to the environment and public health from fracking spills and leaks. Others say around-the-clock noise, lights and fumes from drilling rigs make their homes unlivable as oilfields overlap with growing communities.

The industry says fracking is safe and that drilling companies take steps to minimize the disturbances.

Restrictions on fracking were proposed for Colorado’s 2014 ballot, but they were withdrawn because of fears they would lead to a huge Republican turnout and hand several close statewide races to the GOP.

Gov. John Hickenlooper promised to convene a task force to address the conflicts caused by drilling, but fracking critics were disappointed by its recommendations, and the industry said regulators went too far in implementing them.

This year, the presidential election will have a bigger impact on turnout than the fracking proposals, said Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan Denver pollster. But fracking could influence races in the Legislature, where Democrats have a narrow majority in the House and Republicans have a narrow edge in the Senate, he said.

“I do think that at the legislative level where relatively small shifts in turnout could be a big thing, it could be very important,” Ciruli said.

Some of the proposed constitutional amendments would clamp specific restrictions on the oil and gas industry, such as minimum distances between wells and homes. Others would grant local governments more regulatory power. Because they’re constitutional amendments, they would supersede Monday’s Supreme Court ruling.

Olson’s group and others are still gathering petitions to get their amendments on the ballot. If they succeed, they will face a well-financed campaign to defeat them.

By the end of last year, the pro-industry group, Protecting Colorado’s Environment, Economy and Energy Independence, had $746,000 on hand, according to state records.

Two groups supporting the constitutional amendments to restrict fracking reported they had less than $15,000 combined on hand this spring. Their reports covered a different period than the industry group’s.

“What we know is that industry has already been advertising nonstop,” Olson said. “What we know is they will put everything against it. But what we also know is that we have very few options left to protect Colorado’s health, safety and welfare.”

From The Durango Herald (Peter Marcus):

The issue does not directly impact La Plata County, where there is no ban or moratorium on oil and gas drilling activities. But it stands to guide future actions.

“The Supreme Court’s decision does not mean that the local control issue is going away,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, a Democrat. “Local governments need the ability to plan and ensure that oil and gas development occurs away from schools and neighborhoods.”

Some observers say the ruling reaffirmed local governments’ land-use authority, since it stated only that bans and moratoriums interfere with the state’s rule-making.

La Plata County in 1992 had a stake in determining that authority, when the Supreme Court upheld the county’s authority to regulate land-use impacts of oil and gas development.

In separate unanimous written rulings Monday, the Supreme Court declared a fracking ban in Longmont and a moratorium in Fort Collins illegal, stating that the voter-approved actions conflict with state law.

“This ruling sends a strong message that bans are not the way we do business in Colorado,” said Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council.

She underscored that La Plata and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have “robust” rules that have been re-written dozens of times over several decades.

“The reality is political decisions take away private property rights, they restrict and hinder business, and they disrupt the economy, here in La Plata County, and in other counties and cities in the state,” Zeller said.

Bruce Baizel, a Durango-based energy program director for Earthworks, called the Supreme Court’s ruling disappointing, but not surprising.

“It kind of pushes things back into the political realm in terms of initiatives,” Baizel said. “They (the Supreme Court) explicitly said it doesn’t matter if drilling or fracking negatively impacts residents, and the state has decided it’s not going to address that.”

Justice Richard L. Gabriel, who wrote the court’s opinion, said justices were not charged with weighing the economic advantages or health risks associated with fracking.

“This case … does not require us to weigh in on these differences of opinion, much less to try to resolve them,” Gabriel wrote.

Groups are readying ballot initiatives for November that run the gamut, including allowing local governments to ban fracking and increasing the distance of well setbacks.

“It makes absolute sense that it would strengthen those folks’ resolve to get a measure on the ballot,” Lachelt said of the ruling.

She co-chaired a task force that convened in 2014 to address the local control issue.

“I’ve expressed my disappointment that the task force didn’t adequately deal with the issues,” Lachelt said. “But just because we have a Supreme Court ruling doesn’t make this issue go away.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who convened the task force as part of a compromise to avoid ballot initiatives at the time, defended the work of the panel.

“The work of the task force amplified the role of local governments in siting large oil and gas facilities and built a stronger connection between state and local regulators,” the governor said in a statement.

Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, doubts the high court’s ruling will quell controversy.

“I fear today’s ruling will not end this divisive debate and instead some activists will continue to push anti-development initiatives undermining the state’s record of local cooperation on these policy issues,” Coffman said.

Lauren Petrie, regional director of Food and Water Watch – which helped with several initiatives across the state – said much of the opposition is just beginning.

“Today’s decision deals a devastating blow not just to Longmont residents, but to all Coloradans who have been stripped of a democratic process that should allow us the right to protect our health, safety and property from the impacts of this dangerous industrial activity.”

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan (Jacy Maramaduke):

The Colorado Supreme Court on Monday struck down Fort Collins’ five-year fracking moratorium, a long-awaited decision that could have statewide implications for the controversial oil and gas recovery method.

The court also ruled against Longmont’s voter-supported ban on hydraulic fracturing, the widespread practice of injecting a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals underground to break open formations and recover oil and gas.

In its first judgment on local fracking bans and moratoriums, the court called both laws “invalid and unenforceable” because they’re preempted by state law.

Fort Collins voters supported the moratorium in 2013, and Longmont’s ban was voted into place in 2012. But the Colorado Oil and Gas Association sued both cities in separate cases and won in the lower courts, resulting in the bans being thrown out.

Both cities appealed the lower court’s decisions, and the state appeals court in August asked the Supreme Court to take the cases. The high court heard oral arguments for the cases in December.

ANALYSIS: What’s in Larimer County’s fracking fluid?

The Fort Collins and Longmont cases represent an ongoing debate in Colorado and beyond about whether the ultimate right to regulate the oil and gas industry should belong to states or municipalities. The city of Fort Collins spent about $191,000 on outside counsel defending the citizen-initiated moratorium in court. COGA spent about $1 million fighting the Fort Collins and Longmont laws, along with a fracking ban in Lafayette and moratorium in Broomfield.

There are currently no active wells or permit-pending wells in Fort Collins. One oilfield extends into the northern edge of Fort Collins, but it’s been at least three and a half years since a well was fracked there.

What’s next?

Fort Collins and Longmont can’t appeal the decisions to the U.S. Supreme Court because they aren’t a matter of federal law. The city of Fort Collins hasn’t yet announced its next steps, if any.

In a statement, Fort Collins city attorney Carrie Daggett said it’s “premature” to comment until the city has carefully reviewed the high court’s decision.

“These issues are complex, and we’ll thoroughly examine the decisions relative to Fort Collins and Longmont,” she said.

Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins, which campaigned for the ballot measure that installed the moratorium, wrote in a Facebook post that the group will meet in two weeks to discuss next steps. The group had not replied to the Coloradoan’s request for more information by mid-afternoon Monday.

COGA leaders said they were pleased that the court sided with them in their view that local fracking bans and moratoriums are illegal in Colorado.

“This is not just a win for the energy industry, but for the people of Colorado who rely on affordable and dependable energy and a strong economy,” COGA President and CEO Dan Haley said in a press release. “It sends a strong message to anyone trying to drive this vital industry out of the state that those efforts will not be tolerated.”

Longmont’s City Attorney’s Office will meet in executive session with the Longmont City Council on Tuesday night to review the court ruling, according to a city press release.

Broomfield, which faced a COGA lawsuit similar to Fort Collins’ for its voter-initiated, five-year fracking moratorium, stalled the lawsuit in anticipation of the Colorado Supreme Court decision. Monday’s rulings will likely lead to the invalidation of that moratorium, along with a five-year moratorium in place in Boulder and unincorporated Boulder County.

The city of Lafayette didn’t appeal after a district court judge struck down its fracking ban in 2014.

Mixed reactions

City of Longmont

“The case did not end as the city hoped, but we respect the Supreme Court’s decision,” Longmont Mayor Dennis Coombs said in a press release. Coombs noted that Longmont’s other oil and gas regulations, including no drilling in neighborhoods, mandatory groundwater monitoring and setbacks from riparian areas remain in place.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a Democrat whose district includes Fort Collins

Polis called the decision “a blow to democracy and local control” in a statement.

“Now that the law has been interpreted, it’s up to the state legislature or the people of Colorado to act to protect our neighborhoods and homes,” he said. “I look forward to continuing to help advocates in these efforts to protect our communities.”

The representative also submitted an amicus curiae brief to the court siding with Fort Collins. Through his attorney, Courtney Krause, Polis argued that Fort Collins’ moratorium was a valid land use regulation.

Colorado Rep. Mike Foote, a Democrat whose district includes Longmont

In a press release, Foote said he was disappointed about the decisions but noted that they reaffirmed local governments’ land use authority.

“Cities and counties may need to modify their approach somewhat,” Foote said, “but it’s clear that the Court has reaffirmed that local governments do have a seat at the table when it comes to oil and gas development.”

“And “in cases where local control isn’t recognized, we as legislators have the ability to step in,” he added.

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman

In a press release, Coffman said that local fracking bans “undermine the interests of the state as a whole.” But despite the court decisions, the fight might not be over yet, she said.

“Sadly, I fear today’s ruling will not end this divisive debate and instead some activists will continue to push anti-development initiatives undermining the state’s record of local cooperation on these policy issues,” she said.

Boulder County Board of Commissioners, which passed a moratorium on fracking in unincorporated areas of the county until July 2018

The high court decisions are specific to the communities named in the lawsuits, an unidentified board representative wrote in a press release, so the impact of the decisions on Boulder County will need further analysis.

“Like all other Colorado communities that regulate oil and gas development, we need to take a close look at our existing regulations before we take any action to change our stance on fracking in unincorporated Boulder County,” the release said.

Conservation Colorado

In a press release, Conservation Colorado executive director Pete Maysmith called the decisions “disappointing” and said that local governments should be able to call a timeout on drilling while they examine its impacts.

“These decisions … show that the oil and gas industry’s threats of litigation are a hammer that the industry has no qualms about wielding against local governments if they decide to engage in land use planning,” he said in the release. “In order to combat this hammer, local governments must be empowered with better tools to protect their citizens from heavy industrial drilling.”

Colorado Petroleum Council

The Colorado Petroleum Council welcomed the decisions for upholding the state’s primacy in overseeing oil and natural gas permitting and curtailing “arbitrary bans” on fracking that could cost local jobs, deprive state and local governments of tax revenue and limit access to energy resources, according to a CPC press release.

“Today’s decision protects private property rights, which are a main driver for the energy renaissance in this country,” executive director Tracee Bentley said in the release. “The U.S. was counted out as an oil and natural gas superpower, but with states like Colorado leading the way, the U.S. defied the odds to become the world’s largest producer of natural gas and a world leader in crude production.”

Advancing Colorado, a political advocacy group that supports fracking and the production of coal and natural gas, among other things

“Today’s ruling protects Colorado’s robust energy portfolio and energy independence, and sends a strong message to the deceptive anti-energy extremists,” executive director Jonathan Lockwood said in a statement. “The Colorado Supreme Court is protecting our democratic process and their ruling will help protect our health, safety and property from the attacks of dangerous special interest groups.”

Interior official looks toward Roan — The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Gary Harmon):

The Roan Plateau is high on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s list of issues to be resolved in the remaining months of the Obama administration.

Jewell recently discussed the next 100 years of conservation and a “course correction” before the National Geographic Society.

The Interior Department has “some work left to re-examine whether decisions made in prior administrations properly considered where it makes sense to develop and where it doesn’t,” Jewell said. “Or where science is helping us better understand the value of the land and water and potential impacts of development. Places like Badger Two-Medicine in Montana, or the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, or the Roan Plateau in Colorado.”

Jewell’s comments, however, left some Colorado officials questioning whether they signaled a change in the direction of the management of the Roan.

The Bureau of Land Management is completing an environmental study of the area. BLM, industry and environmental groups and local governments in late 2014 reached an agreement to cancel 17 of the 19 leases issued on the plateau in 2008. The remaining two leases on top and 12 leases at the base of the plateau were to remain in place.

Jewell was referring to the plan now under study by the BLM, the Interior Department said…

The Roan Plateau was managed by the U.S. Department of Energy as an oil shale reserve until 1997, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation transferring the area to the BLM.

The act required the BLM to manage the area for multiple use and instructed the agency to begin leasing it for oil and gas development.

“We hope the secretary’s mention of the Roan Plateau bodes well for the future of the area,” said Luke Schafer, West Slope Advocacy director for Conservation Colorado, urging the BLM to complete the management plan “to protect the pristine lands, rare species, and remarkable habitat on the Roan.”

The directive to lease the area, however, remains, said David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

Jewell’s “policies may contribute to compliance with that law taking decades rather than years,” Ludlam said, “but for the benefit of future generations we will never stop advocating for the responsible development that must and someday will occur on the Roan Plateau.”

Proposal creates ‘monumental’ friction — the Valley Courier

Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management
Rio Grande del Norte National Monument via the Bureau of Land Management

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Proponents of an expanded national monument met with water leaders and some resistance on Tuesday in Alamosa.

Rio Grande Water Conservation District (RGWCD) Board Member Dwight Martin , who lives in the southern part of the San Luis Valley where the proposed expansion would occur, was clear in his opposition to expanding the existing Rio Grande del Norte National Monument northward from New Mexico into the San Luis Valley.

“I am adamantly opposed to this monument designation ,” Martin said. “We really don’t need this monument in Conejos County. I really don’t see what it serves.”

He added that the Conejos County commissioners are also opposed to the monument expansion. Martin said about 90 percent of Conejos County residents at a meeting he attended on the monument were opposed to the expansion, and he questioned why the expansion was needed.

Anna Vargas, project coordinator for Conejos Clean Water, the organization promoting the monument expansion, responded that the meeting Martin attended was a meeting hosted by opponents .

“There has been interest in supporting the national monument, and there has been opposition that has been raised,” Vargas said. “We have tried to address all the concerns.”

Vargas told water board members on Tuesday that Conejos Clean Water had accepted language recommended by the water district to safeguard water rights within the monument, if it is expanded into the Valley. The language also recognizes the existing Rio Grande Natural Area, which lies in the proposed monument expansion.

“We are not trying to trump any of the work that’s been done on the natural area,” Vargas said.

Vargas recently completed the intensive water leadership course sponsored by several water groups including the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. She said the course gave her a better understanding of water issues and rights, such as the Rio Grande Compact. She said she had not viewed the monument expansion as affecting water rights but as more of a land protection issue . She said she now understood the potential problem implied water rights could generate.

“We don’t want national monument designation to have any implied water rights,” she said. The goal of the monument expansion, she said, is to preserve the land for traditional uses.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, encompassing 242,500 acres, was designated by presidential proclamation in 2013. The expansion proposal would bring the monument north of the New Mexico state line into the southern part of the Valley and would encompass about 64,000 additional acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, Vargas explained.

She said the goal would be to preserve traditional uses such as piñon and wood gathering, hunting, fishing and other recreational uses. The monument would also prevent the land from being sold or leased for mining extraction. The turquoise mine would be “grandfathered in,” she said.

Vargas said proponents of the monument expansion want to be proactive in protecting the land from oil and gas activity.

“To us, that is a threat,” she said.

In 2007 that threat was real, she said, with four oil/gas sales involving 14,500 acres in the San Luis Hills and Flat Tops. The reason drilling did not occur, she added, was “basically because of a loophole” created because private landholders had not been notified of the sales.

“What we don’t want is a repeat of that,” she said. There might not be a loophole to prevent it in the future, she added.

Martin said, “This is really about oil and gas and not about protecting the land. All the monument will do is make it more restrictive for landowners.”

Vargas said that is why Conejos Clean Water is trying to get more community input and address these issues. She said there are rumors that the group is trying to prevent such uses as cattle grazing, but that is not the case. Such traditional uses are what the monument would protect, she said.

The land would continue to be BLM property, public lands, she said.

“We want it to stay publicly accessible.”

“Thank you for recognizing the concerns the district expressed,” RGWCD Attorney David Robbins told Vargas.

The district also sent a letter to the Department of the Interior and Colorado’s congressional delegation expressing the district’s concerns about the monument expansion without terms and conditions that would ensure water resources and the Rio Grande Natural Area are not adversely affected. The Rio Grande Natural Area, created through a federal, state and local partnership, integrates the management of federal and private properties along the Rio Grande between Alamosa and the state line to protect the riparian corridor for several purposes including Rio Grande Compact deliveries.

The district’s letter to congressmen regarding the monument expansion stated: “Every federal withdrawal or designation carries with it an implication that sufficient water will be made available to support the purposes of the designation unless specifically disavowed. The flows of the Rio Grande and the Conejos rivers in this area of the San Luis Valley are intimately tied to the economic and social health of the entire region, and reflect 150 years of water use practices that support the entirety of the San Luis Valley’s population as well as a water management structure designated to allow Colorado to freely utilize its share of the Rio Grande and its tributaries pursuant to the Rio Grande Compact. Any new federal land use designation that could impact or interfere with the water use practices in the San Luis Valley or Colorado’s ability to utilize the water resources to which it is entitled must be strenuously resisted by our elected federal representatives , as well as all of our state officials . This matter is of enormous importance.”

Representatives of the district also personally met with congressmen and Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor.

The district presented language protecting the Rio Grande Natural Area that it requested be included in the monument designation, were that to occur, and Conejos Clean Water has agreed to that language.

Robbins said the Valley’s congressmen and Department of Interior also assured the district they would not move forward with a monument expansion unless the district’s concerns were properly addressed.

Business voices come out in support of Clean Power Plan — GreenBiz #keepitintheground

Solar panels, such these at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo., need virtually no water, once they are manufactured. Photo/Allen Best
Solar panels, such these at the Garfield County Airport near Rifle, Colo., need virtually no water, once they are manufactured. Photo/Allen Best

From GreenBiz (Barbara Grady):

Tech titans Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon as well as global brand companies Ikea, Mars, Adobe and Blue Shield Blue Cross Massachusetts told a U.S. court Friday that they need the federal Clean Power Plan for economic reasons.

In two separate Amici Curiae briefs filed in U.S. Circuit Court supporting the EPA’s plan for reducing carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants by 32 percent, the corporate giants said without a “national carbon mitigation plan,” they face “undesirable business risk,” energy price volatility and higher costs.

With these arguments, the businesses seem to have flipped prospects for the Obama administration’s centerpiece climate change policy, which only a month ago looked dim after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to delay its enforcement.

Since the eight companies collectively employ about 1 million people, account for nearly $2 trillion in market capitalization and are major energy consumers — the tech companies alone use 10 million megawatt hours of electricity a year — they have clout.

Their briefs refute some claims made by 27 states that are plaintiffs in the State of West Virginia, et al vs. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency case challenging the Clean Power Plan as an overreach of federal authority by the EPA in a way that would harm jobs and raise electricity prices.

Among the companies’ most interesting refutations? Their expansion plans depend partly on how they can procure low-carbon electricity.

Mineral owners assert property rights #keepitintheground

Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation
Directional drilling from one well site via the National Science Foundation

From The Denver Post (John Aguilar):

At a contentious meeting in Adams County in January that carried on until the early-morning hours, several mineral rights owners stood up before the commissioners and lambasted a proposed 10-month drilling moratorium as an abrogation of their property rights.

In late February, a group of mineral owners appeared before a state House committee to support HB-1181, a bill that would require communities that ban drilling to compensate mineral owners for lost royalties.

And on Tuesday, those who own minerals are being encouraged to attend a Greeley City Council special meeting in which the council will consider an appeal from Extraction Oil & Gas to drill up to 22 wells on the city’s west side. The plan was turned down by the city’s planning commission earlier this year in the wake of strong public resistance.

“It’s all about protecting the economic foundation of our country, which is private property rights,” Smith said. “The issue is this is my property, and I have every right to realize the benefit of that property right.”

That right, she said, is enshrined in the very fabric of the state constitution and reflected in Colorado’s long history of mining.

No simple line

But Rep. Michael Foote, D-Lafayette, said the issue is not that cut and dried. Where one person’s property right ends, he said, another’s begins.

Foote was one of five Democratic legislators on the State, Military and Veterans Affairs committee to vote to kill HB-1181 on Feb. 24.

“It can’t just be that someone has mineral rights and they say they can exploit those rights any way that they see fit,” he said. “You have surface property owners who are losing value in their homes when drilling is done right next door.”

Foote characterizes the clash of property rights revolving around oil and gas activity as a “big issue” playing out across the state. It has even reached the Colorado Supreme Court, where the high court is set to decide in the coming weeks on how far a local community can go in limiting oil and gas development.

Emily Hornback, a community organizer with the Western Colorado Congress, has spent the past few years advocating for residents of Battlement Mesa. They worry about the impacts of a plan by Ursa Resources to drill 53 natural gas wells in the neighborhood.

In December, the company got special use permits from Garfield County but still must get approval from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission before moving forward.

Hornback said residents of the 5,500-person community, many of whom are retirees, fear for their property values in the face of heavily industrialized activity on their doorstep.

But they don’t have the political power as an unincorporated community to do much to mitigate the impacts, she said.

“For the adjacent landowner, the world appears against them and they don’t have much legal recourse,” Hornback said. “Whose property right is winning and whose property right is losing?”

Doug Saxton, a retiree who has lived in Battlement Mesa for 11 years, said his wife has asthma that is exacerbated by emissions from oil and gas activity.

Saxton said with the dramatic advances in horizontal drilling technology in the last few years, Ursa should be able to get to the natural gas deposits under Battlement Mesa — and in turn pay the mineral rights owners for their assets — from a much farther distance.

“They have tremendous technology they like to brag about,” he said, “and they ought to be using it when they’re going to impact this many people.”

Key issue

Lance Astrella, a Denver-based attorney who has represented landowners and mineral owners alike, said providing “reasonable” access to minerals beneath the surface is the key issue under Colorado law.

That’s because the state operates under a “split estates” rubric, in which the surface rights and the subsurface rights are often owned by different parties.

Under state law, the mineral estate is considered the dominant estate and operators cannot be prevented from “entering upon and using that amount of the surface as is reasonable and necessary to explore for, develop and produce oil and gas.”

But that dominance isn’t unbridled.

Astrella helped draft a 2007 state statute that introduced the concept of “reasonable accommodation” for a surface owner affected by nearby drilling activity. The law states that an operator shall conduct its operations in a manner that minimizes “intrusion upon and damage to the surface of the land.”

The industry insists that it has made numerous accommodations to surface owners and communities over the years, buffering noise with berms and walls and reducing pad size through the use of directional drilling.

In some communities, oil and gas operators have agreed to abide by memorandums of understanding, which are specific agreements between companies and local governments spelling out stricter standards of operation than what the state mandates.

But Astrella said the people who own the oil and gas deposits that the companies are trying to extract find it hard to prevail in the court of public opinion.

“The ones who have the intrusion and negative effects of oil and gas drilling — their situation is obvious and they have the public’s attention,” he said. “The mineral owners are less likely to have that benefit.”

Smith, with the National Association of Royalty Owners, said that’s because the conflict is between a property you can see — a home — and one you can’t — a pocket of natural gas.

“We don’t have the same voice because the legislature will take care of the property right on the surface rather than the property in the mineral estate,” she said. “It’s out of sight and out of mind. However, it’s a property right you can buy and sell like any other property right.”

Paying the bills

Minerals rights can also be inherited. That’s how Mike Paulsen, a wine and spirits deliveryman in Denver, obtained his minerals in Weld County. He said he used to get $200 a month from his holdings, but the industry’s recent price and production drop means he now gets a $50 check every few months.

It’s harder for him to keep up on his bills and pay off his debts.

“I not only used it to pay my bills but to have something to pass on to my kids,” said Paulsen, 53. “There’s not going to be anything left by the time I get my bills paid.”

He worries about the rising movement to limit oil and gas operations spreading to where his minerals are and impinging on his property rights.

“It really bothers me,” Paulsen said.

The total amount of royalty income in Colorado is hard to determine, Smith said, because agreements between oil and gas companies and mineral owners are privately negotiated. But based on the $475 million in royalties paid out in 2014 on state and federal lands, Smith extrapolates that total payouts statewide were around $1.1 billion.

Jon Isaacs of Adams County showed off a measley $102 check from Anadarko Petroleum Corp. The money represents a year’s worth of royalty payments off a 30-year-old oil and gas well on Isaacs’ property.

It’s not much, he concedes, but the real value under his 40-acre spread located just 4 miles north of Denver International Airport lies in the future. He smooths out a spreadsheet in his basement office that shows estimated royalty collections should a firm using the latest highly productive extraction methods drill new wells on his land.

At $31 per barrel, Isaacs says he’d get $19,000 in royalties a year. That rises to $37,000 annually by 2021, assuming a rebound in prices to $75 per barrel.

It’s his retirement fund, he said. No different than someone who invests in stocks, bonds or cattle futures.

“It’s so I can stay here at this house that I’ve improved and plant crops on my land and stay in Adams County into retirement,” said the 58-year-old, who bought this windswept parcel only because it came with mineral rights. “I bought this land as an investment.”

Roni Sylvester of La Salle is also looking to the future, which she now deems “uncertain” given recent anti-oil and gas efforts in the state. Her husband was planning to donate a ranch he owns in Wyoming to Colorado State University’s agricultural college.

That plan is now on hold because the couple can’t be certain their royalty income stream will remain intact.

“There’s no way you can plan,” Sylvester said. “It knocks the foundation out from underneath you. You have to plan for the absolute worst-case scenario.”