April 29, 2004 | Back Issues « previous | next »
Driller vs. Community Conflicts Rising As Bush Opens Rocky Mountain Lands

A recent accident at a natural gas well near the Colorado River released levels of the carcinogen benzene nearly 80 times federal safety limits into a Colorado River tributary, and brought renewed attention to an obscure provision in the stalled national energy bill that was included to benefit Halliburton Corp., Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer.

The benzene was detected after a local landowner in Silt, CO, noticed bubbles of methane gas in a section of Divide Creek that runs through his property. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the gas seep was caused by the improper use of a controversial natural gas drilling technique, known as "hydraulic fracturing" that was pioneered by Halliburton.

"We cited some rules we believe were violated, rules that prevent contamination of fresh water by natural gas," Brian Macke, COGCC deputy director, told the Rocky Mountain News.[1]

After the gas and benzene leak was detected, residents of the area were asked to stop drinking from their water wells, and the gas company shut down all its drilling operations in a two-mile radius. Residents are reportedly receiving bottled water while the gas company monitors levels of contaminants in area water supplies.

"This level of benzene indicates a serious problem," Sarah Johnson, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment's Water Quality Division, told the Glenwood Springs Post.[2]

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracing," involves pumping a mixture of chemicals, often including benzene or other toxics, into the ground to release gas that is trapped in rock formations. Halliburton pioneered the technique in the 1990's, and was fracing wells in the Silt area when the accident occurred. According to COGCC officials, EnCana Corp., the general contractor for the natural gas development, may not have properly constructed the gas wells in the area to prevent the benzene contamination and ongoing gas seep that is bubbling up in the creek. EnCana hired Halliburton to conduct fracing operations on its wells.

While the benzene in Divide Creek appears to have abated, the controversy over fracing has not. In 2001, Halliburton successfully lobbied the White House and Congress to insert a provision in the Cheney task force's national energy bill that would exempt oil and gas companies from federal court rulings that require controls on hydraulic fracturing -- operations identical to the one that contaminated Divide Creek.

In interviews last fall, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said they were "not enthusiastic about" the bill's exemptions for fracing.[3]

"When they lobbied to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the oil and gas industry told Congress that what happened in Silt could never happen," says Erik Olson, a senior water quality attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, DC. http://www.nrdc.org "This is one more example of why Congress should dump the energy bill."

Silt, a small community on the banks of the Colorado River roughly 150 miles west of Denver, is in the heart of a major natural gas boom being fueled partially by White House policies that loosen public health and environmental rules for gas drilling operations. As the drilling rigs creep ever closer to residential areas, conflicts between drillers and local Rocky Mountain communities are on the rise.

In late March, EnCana sued the small Colorado town of Firestone for trying to restrict gas well development in a residential area. In early April, a blowout at a natural gas well in the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, forced the evacuation of nearly 1,200 residents for four days. Wastewater from coalbed methane development in Wyoming and Montana is fueling fears of a breakout of West Nile virus in that area. And in Wyoming's Green River basin, severe air pollution from a giant gas drilling operation has prompted the Department of Interior to consider closing a broad swath of public lands to public access.

Until last spring, EnCana employees in Silt flew pirate flags atop many of the company's drilling rigs, but took them down when area residents complained that it only added to their sense of invasion.

Tell your Senators you oppose the energy bill and voice your concern about hydraulic fracturing through NRDC.


[1] "EnCana liable for gas leak," Rocky Mountain News, Apr. 27, 2004.
[2] "Gas found bubbling up in Divide Creek," Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Apr. 9, 2004.
[3] "Provisions Benefiting Industry Folded Into Bill," Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2003.



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