MONTROSE – At the Heidi’s Deli forum last Wednesday, a man who knows about oil and gas development told the Montrose crowd: “Make sure you folks get ahead of this. It’s something that you really can’t catch back up to.”
The man was Bruce Bertram, a Cedaredge native, a veteran of the oil business, and now, brought out of retirement, the official liaison between Delta County and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, known as the local governmental designee (LGD).
“I never thought I’d get back in the oil and gas business again,” he said near the beginning of his talk on hydraulic fracturing. “But beginning in 2002 [as the drilling boom reached western Colorado], I worked as a consultant, an ‘interpreter’ of oil and gas jargon for the Delta Board of County Commissioners. And now as LGD, which has been given a bigger role” in the years since former Gov. Bill Ritter presided over a restructuring of the COGCC, changing it from an industry group to one that also includes advocates for public health and the environment.
His job, he said, is to “keep track of all the oil and gas operations in Delta County. County regulations state that I have access [to drilling operations] at any time. There have,” he said, “been only two incidents [of spills or leaks] so far in Delta County. That is thanks, I like to think, to Delta County watching.”
Bertram told the early-morning crowd at Heidi’s that neither Delta nor Montrose is seeing a great deal of activity in the gas fields now. But that it will likely come. “Your Mancos shale in Montrose County does produce,” he said. “They may look here.”
And when they do, fracking will no doubt be employed.
Bertram used his PowerPoint to illustrate the intricacies of drilling and fracking a well. The technology, “which has come about just in the last few years,” clearly delighted him.
He went into the details of a well that has been drilled north of his home in Cedaredge. How the four sets of metal pipes, nested like a Russian doll, descended to “the producing horizon, between 7,200 and 8,600 feet down.” He talked about horizontal drilling, how in the Bakken formation in North Dakota “they can drill 10,000 feet – two miles – horizontally from the hole.
“How do they communicate with the end of the drill pipe, you ask? They communicate by sound.”
When it comes time to “treat,” a well by fracking it, Bertram said, “It takes a lot of water to do this.” The makeup of fracking fluid is mostly water, he said, “along with some of your common household fluids, rust and bacteria inhibitors, and sand,” and a tiny percentage of things the industry would rather not discuss, or disclose.
As for the water (blasted at high pressure into the producing horizon to create cracks in the rock, the better to release the gas), each treatment uses 2,000 barrels of water. (Some wells need to be “treated” over and over.) That’s 84,000 gallons or .257 acre-feet per treatment. Pumped in at 6,000-8,000 psi, injecting 100-500 gallons per minute.
The fractures propagate 100-200 feet into the rock. To keep the cracks open, the fracking fluid contains different sizes of sand grains, known as proppants. They are carried down the hole and into the cracks suspended in a gel. “Breaker” chemicals break down the gel “to a water-like substance in an hour or two, so when the pressure is released, the liquid backs out while the sand stays in place.”
“Flow-back” and “production water” are collected at the surface in tanks, or piped to another location for reuse. Bertram didn’t say if the water could ever be made potable again.
Questions from the crowd followed, including this: “Do you test ground water prior to drilling and do you monitor the water quality after? I ask because we hear about benzene in Parachute Creek.”
Bertram said, “Delta County does drill test wells in the area and tests the water.”
“If there is a leak, what do you do?”
“The Parachute leak should have been plugged right away. But I’m afraid I haven’t answered your question very well.”
Hinting at the relative powerlessness of counties to regulate or enforce best practices, he concluded, “We do have a phone tree.”