The word “fracking” has come to mean drilling in general for oil and gas-- and a major concern for communities and environmentalists in Colorado and elsewhere.In reality the process of hydraulic fracturing is a specialized procedure used to create cracks in shale deposits thousands of feet underground which in turn releases trapped natural gas. There are hundreds of fracked wells in Garfield County. Often you can see them from the highway. Recently Aspen Public Radio got a tour of a fracking operation run by WPX Energy near Parachute. Hear the story by APR's Elise Thatcher below. See a slideshow of photographs of the rig by APR's Roger Adams HERE.
Jeff Kirtland: “Ok, I just wanted to give you kind of a point of view of what our driller is looking at…”
Jeff Kirtland handles communications for WPX, and is ushering us into the brain of a rig. We’re now several stories high in an air conditioned room about the size of a small RV. Its pretty calm and quiet.
Kirtland: “This is like living in the Hilton, huh David?”
David Duke : “Yes sir.”
David Duke is sitting in a chair surrounded by computer screens, manipulating a joystick. Duke is the driller. He’s controlling a drill bit spinning thousands of feet underground and eyeballing his progress with updates on the screens.
“With all these things it tells us where the bit is, like right now, with this tally, I’ve reset my depth and after I’ve accomplished it’ll self track and tell me exactly, where the bottom, the bottom of the casing is, and it’s at four thousand, four hundred and forty feet right now. Approximately--it's really close to that.
Through the window, we see workers feeding pipe into the well Duke is drilling. They’ve spent a lot of time doing that. Again, Jeff Kirtland.
“These guys work twelve hours a day, for fourteen days, they get two weeks off, and then they come back and do it again.”
At this drilling pad they’re on the eighth of nearly two dozen wells.
Kirtland: “Thanks for having us! We’ll bring pizzas next time!” Laughs. “Be real careful going down here…”
Reporter: Then we leave this cool haven, the brain of the drilling rig, for the rest of the tour. This is the world you might think of when talking about drilling. There’s heavy machinery everywhere, and workers are stained with grease and dirt. Below the brain center, there’s a series of pipes for each newly drilled well.
“What you can see underneath the rig here is the blowout preventer, that’s one of the major safety aspects of all drilling operations is this big valve that sits under the floor, over the wellhead, that ensures that the pressure stays consistent. If that thing fails that’s when you have problems.”
The entire pad spans about an acre and a half. And on one side there are the sludgy leftovers brought up by drilling. They’re called cuttings, and still have some oil mixed in. Kirtland holds out his hand.
“These are pellets that have microorganisms infused in them. Once they hit the moist cuttings, they will start to eat those hydrocarbons to a non-detect level.”
And creating a potting soil that will help reseed this pad in a few months. Once the wells are put in, much of the heavy equipment is removed and the pad shrinks down.
As our little group continues its tour, there’s fracking going on deep below us. Recycled water and chemicals are being pumped down into the newly drilled wells. After they have been hydraulically fractured or fracked, natural gas will flow up to the surface.
Fracking depends upon heavy pumps that need a lot of power. That’s no small issue in this rural location and it comes from almost a mile away, down the road and around a hill. This part of the operation is subcontracted out to Halliburton.
Tony from Halliburton: “By the way, welcome up here to the frack pad. Everything that you see that’s marked off in yellow, is a chemical restricted area…”
It’s arguably the most striking part of the tour. A Halliburton supervisor named Tony shows us around an old well pad, where a mass of pulsating hoses writhe on the ground. They’re between two rows of semi trucks.
“So going between those trucks if they were to snap, we gotta an issue going on. It is going to be loud…”
Engines on the back of these trucks are pumping the thousands of gallons of sand, reused water, and chemicals needed for fracking...at high pressure into those hoses. They connect back to the newly drilled wells, freeing up natural gas in the shale rock below..
Controversy over drilling and fracking is growing, and Colorado residents will decide this fall whether to let communities restrict them. Jeff Kirtland points to safety regulations, and says WPX Energy goes above and beyond them just to make sure. They weren’t involved in benzene pollution from a spill last year near Parachute. Still, the company had to convince Garfield County that their version of fracking was a good idea.
“So as we began to demonstrate that our innovations and our efficiencies are really geared toward really making everybody’s life easier, from an impact standpoint, then they began to see-- you know, allowed us to you know carry on in doing that. They trusted us in that regard.”
This fall voters will decide whether they agree, too.