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.

Mead: 13.75 shares in the Highland Ditch, 276 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water on auction block

For nearly 30 years, Mead was a bustling community. At its peak, Mead had three general stores, a hotel, a combination grocery store and meat market, two saloons, butcher shop, filling station, two auto garages. Photo via HistoricHighlandLake.org.
For nearly 30 years, Mead was a bustling community. At its peak, Mead had three general stores, a hotel, a combination grocery store and meat market, two saloons, butcher shop, filling station, two auto garages. Photo via HistoricHighlandLake.org.

From The Denver Post (Danika Worthington):

“Water is the new gold,” said Scott Shuman, a partner in Hall and Hall, the auction house that will sell 411 acres of the Reynolds Farm and 13.75 shares in the Highland Ditch, along with the big-ticket item: 276 units of Colorado-Big Thompson water.

As Colorado’s population has grown, so has demand for water. Shuman said he expects farmers, cities and developers to try to get a piece of the Reynolds Farm portfolio…

High demand means prices are already high. C-BT shares have sold for between $25,000 and $28,000 each, according to the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency that manages the C-BT system — which conveys water from the headwaters of the Colorado River to the Front Range and plains.

This means the C-BT water alone could bring in $6.9 million to $7.7 million, compared with the auction house’s estimate for the land of $5,000 to $15,000 per acre, or $2 million to $6.2 million…

These particular water rights are especially attractive because they can be used for multiple purposes — agriculture, development and industrial processes, including fracking — and can be easily traded as long as they stay within C-BT boundaries, said Reagan Waskom, director of Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute…

The Reynolds farmland, which is northeast of the intersection of Interstate 25 and Colorado 66, is bounded by Weld County roads 9 1/2, 32 and 13, and another property.

It is not annexed into a town, although it is in Mead’s growth area. Town manager Mike Segrest said he assumes it will be annexed in the future…

“The price of water is out of reach and the price of land is out of reach.” Waskom said. “Those are development prices.”

He said a farmer would need to have deep pockets and be willing to work the land without making much profit. He added that a young farmer could buy the land and the ditch rights and not the C-BT shares, shifting to dryland farming of crops such as wheat. But that’s a difficult transition and profits would be minimal, especially compared with an irrigated farm.

“Bankers are not going to go there with him,” Waskom said.

It’s more likely that a developer will buy the land, Waskom said. A developer could build on the land or transfer the water rights to a water provider that supplies an area where it has a project.

“I feel like it is inevitable,” Waskom said about the possibility that the water will be separated from the land. “I wish we could plan it better so that our best agricultural lands could stay in working lands. To me, it’s all being driven by the market, which I’m not saying is bad, but it may not end up with the kind of Front Range Colorado we want in 10 to 20 years.”

Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water
Colorado-Big Thompson Project Map via Northern Water

Urban Water Conservation Through Native Landscaping. A Colorado River Day Webinar — Audubon

Photo via Audubon (Abby Burke).
Photo via Audubon (Abby Burke).

Click here for all the inside skinny and to register. From the website:

You Can Help Rivers: Create Habitat!

Urban Water Conservation Through Native Landscaping. A Colorado River Day Webinar.
Thursday, July 21, Noon – 1 p.m. MT
Register here.

Co-presented by:
Abby Burk, Western Rivers Program Lead, Audubon Rockies
Don Ireland, Habitat Hero Award Winner and Volunteer HOA President, Cherry Creek 3

Did you know native landscaping can save both significant water and money? When we say significant, we mean it! Find out how a neighborhood in southeast Denver saved 15 million gallons of water and $100,000 annually by transforming to native landscaping and incorporating water efficiency into everyday life.

The Cherry Creek 3 Homeowner’s Association (HOA) won the 2015 Colorado WaterWise Conservation Award for their efforts! HOA Volunteer President Don Ireland will talk about how he and fellow volunteers led this 251-condo development into a new era of water conservation while simultaneously establishing a new landscaping plan that has attracted many new birds and pollinators into the neighborhood. This HOA, without formal training in water conservation but with a burning desire to “do the right thing,” has been a poster child for water conservation and Audubon Rockies’ Habitat Hero program around the Front Range and beyond.

Register for this webinar today.

You may also be interested in these upcoming webinars from Audubon’s Western Rivers Action Network:

  • Wednesday, July 20, 1 – 2 p.m. MT: Lake Mead Structural Deficit and Why it Matters
    Presented by Kevin Moran, Senior Director of Water Programs, Environmental Defense Fund
  • Wednesday, August 7, 1 – 2 p.m. MT: Diversity and Inclusion in Conservation and Advocacy
    Presented by Chandra Taylor Smith, Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, National Audubon Society
  • Wednesday, September 21, 1 – 2 p.m. MT: River Funding and Restoration Efforts
    Presented by Jennifer Pitt, Director – Colorado River Project, National Audubon Society and Scott Deeny, Arizona Water Program Lead, The Nature Conservancy
  • Flood plain meeting draws huge crowd — The Brush News-Tribune

    southplattebasin062015bobberwyn

    From The Brush News-Tribune (Katie Collins):

    Tuesday night saw the Mark Arndt Events Center in Brush packed full with nearly 400 citizens who gathered to take in information regarding the newly updated floodplain map that recently changed the borders throughout Morgan County.

    The Open House format was somewhat of a surprise for the hundreds who floodedinto the Morgan County Fairgrounds for the 4 p.m. start, but there, all were able to visit booths set up by representatives of the National Flood Insurance Program, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and FEMA who converged to host the informational event.

    Local entities from the Morgan County Planning and Zoning Commission, City of Brush, Town of Wiggins, the Morgan County Board of Commissioners and even local insurance agents were also present for the packed house, answering questions, fielding comments and concerns and helping property owners plug in addresses for an in-depth look at how the new borders might affect them and their insurance requirements.

    More information on specific property placement within the new map, on the City of Brush floodplain ordinance requirements, FEMA’s floodplain resources or on the National Flood Insurance Program, can all be found online at http://www.brushcolo.com by clicking on the orange ‘FLOODPLAIN UPDATES’ box.

    The digital map program that provides a more detailed property search can also be found at http://tiny.cc/CSLF_Morgan_County.

    #COWaterPlan: Colorado Ag Water Alliance workshop recap — The Fort Morgan Times

    South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia
    South Platte River Basin via Wikipedia

    Here’s part one of a recap of the meeting in Brush yesterday from Stephanie Alderton writing for The Fort Morgan Times:

    The Colorado Ag Water Alliance, along with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Water Institute, hosted a three-hour workshop for producers to help explain the new Water Plan’s application to agriculture. Speakers with various roles in water and agriculture talked about the new state plan’s emphasis on alternative transfer methods (ATMs) to conserve water, how the plan will be implemented in the South Platte Basin in particular and how farmers can increase water efficiency. People came from all over the state to hear and discuss details in the plan.

    “A good Colorado plan needs a good South Platte plan,” Joe Frank, of the South Platte Basin Roundtable, said. “Nine out of the top 10 ag producing counties are in this basin.”

    During his talk, the first of the day, he explained that the area has an increasing water supply gap as the population grows, which the Water Plan seeks to address. Frank’s group is in charge of implementing the plan in South Platte by coming up with a balanced, pragmatic program for farmers that is consistent with Colorado law. He said that program will focus on maximizing the use of existing water, encouraging farmers and other organizations to use ATMs in order to share water more effectively and promoting multi-purpose water storage projects, among other things.

    Mike Applegate, of the Northern Water Board, talked about the status of current storage projects all over the state, while MaryLou Smith of Colorado State University gave a list of reasons why producers should want to use their water differently in an effort to conserve more. Phil Brink, of the CCA, reported the results of a survey on farmers’ opinions of ag water leasing, while Dick Wolfe, an engineer with the Colorado Division of Water Resources, explained the problems with the “use it or lose it” mentality farmers tend to have toward their water rights. John Schweizer, a producer from the Arkansas Basin, talked about the success of the Super Ditch near his hometown, an ATM project that recently started seeing results. After a final panel made up of people involved in various ATM projects, including Morgan County dairy farmer Chris Kraft, the audience spent more than an hour trading questions and comments with the speakers.

    The purpose of the workshop, according to a CAWA press release put out beforehand, was to bring people together to discuss the “opportunities and barriers” the Water Plan presents. The speakers in the second half of the day presented many opportunities in the form of ATMs and other projects. For example, Schweizer said the Super Ditch, though it’s taken many years to be completed, has the potential to help many farmers conserve water without new legislation or complicated water rights battles.

    “We’ve had a lot of people say this wouldn’t work,” he said. “We’re starting to prove them wrong…I see nothing but a glorious future for this project.”

    But it was clear that many people at the workshop saw many remaining obstacles to water efficiency. During the question and answer session at the end, several people pointed out that, while ATMs can make it easier for farmers and other organizations to share water, they can’t solve the problem of water shortages by themselves.

    “We are concerned that the state Water Plan talks so much about these ATMs, and a lot of policy makers around the state are counting on them,” Smith said while moderating the discussion. “Part of what we want to do is get the message of what you guys are saying back to some of those policy makers.”

    #COWaterPlan: “There’s real time and then there’s water time” — Joe Frank

    coloradowaterplanexecutivesummaryfinal112015

    From The Sterling Journal-Advocate (Jeff Rice):

    Members and staffers of the Lower South Platte Water Conservancy District’s board of directors have questioned figures published last weekend that put the cost of the Colorado Water Plan at nearly $6 million…

    Joe Frank, LSPWCD executive director, said he questions the accuracy of the figures because of a conversation he’s had with Brent Newman, a program director with the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which produced the CWP. According to Hartman’s figures the roundtable groups for the Denver metro area and the South Platte Basin, which collaborated on a joint Basin Implementation Plan, spent $2.2 million on that plan. But Frank said his conversation with Newman put the number at $1.3 million, or a little more than half of the amount estimated by Hartman.

    Several board members said this morning that even if the $6 million figure is accurate, it’s not out of line for the work that was done, and the results have been well worth the money.

    “I don’t know if you can put a value on the relationships that have grown out of this,” said Brad Stromberger, a board member from Iliff. “The amazing thing was that people who might’ve never talked to each other before, and certainly never talked to this extent, actually sat down and worked out a plan they all can agree on. I just don’t think you can put a value on that.”

    The board members also answered criticism that little has happened since the plan was unveiled in November, and that there aren’t specific project recommendations in the plan. They pointed out that the Colorado Water Plan wasn’t meant to promote specific water storage projects or conservation strategies, and that some movement is being seen.

    “It’s meant to be a blueprint,” said Gene Manuello of Sterling. “But you can’t make recommendations for a specific project in a statewide plan. A water storage project is going to affect someone upstream or downstream, and you have to work those things out.”

    Frank said the plan does, in fact, specify how much water will have to be found over the next 30 to 50 years, and it lays out a process for identifying and developing projects. The board members pointed to House Bill 16-1256, which is aimed at better identifying and recommending water storage possibilities in the South Platte Basin, as one of the results of the CWP. In fact, Section 1 of the bill even mentions the CWP as a reason for the South Platte study to be done.

    Frank said even that legislation, which Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, helped sponsor, addresses two competing needs in the search for adequate water. The bill was introduced by Sen. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, with the intent of finding ways to make more trans-mountain water diversion projects unnecessary. Frank pointed out that a study that identifies water storage opportunities in the South Platte Basin helps water users on both sides of the Continental Divide.

    As for the apparent time lag between the plan’s introduction last year and work actually being done, Frank said, “There’s real time and then there’s water time. Sometimes a lot of talking has to be done to make sure everybody’s on board with a project.”

    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