This article is reprinted from the Winter 2018 issue of Elife.
In a recent tweet for the Erie Protectors (follow us @ErieProtectors), I mentioned that there are 13,103 producing wells in Weld County alone. Another 8,386 are shut in. Another 4,377 have been plugged & abandoned. Another 1,143 are currently being drilled.
The numbers are staggering, especially when we get weekly reminders in the news of explosions, fires, spills, and releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at these facilities during their various stages of production.
This month, I’d like to focus on the last stage of production – the plug & abandon operation. OSHA has a concise definition of the process :
A well is abandoned when it reaches the end of its useful life or is a dry hole.
- The casing and other equipment is removed and salvaged.
- Cement plugs are placed in the borehole to prevent migration of fluids between the different formations.
- The surface is reclaimed.
By the industry’s own admission, “end-of-well operations are often more difficult than initial well construction.” Let this be a cautionary tale told in three parts.
Crestone Peak Resources began plug & abandon operations at the Vessels Minerals site just east of Aspen Ridge Preparatory School on September 12, 2017. The same day, an observant resident filed a complaint with the COGCC about “an odor that is permeating from the site that can be smelled in the school parking lots.” When the COGCC sent out an inspector the following day, he had this to report in a notice of alleged violation (NOAV):
COGCC Staff also observed […] children playing in the playground and watching the rig crew’s operation, and volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) visibly drifting toward the children in the playground.”
While Crestone took corrective action the same day and installed emission control equipment, they had every intention of venting VOCs 25 yards from a playground for 8 weeks while they conducted business as usual. The community was only made aware of the NOAV when an Erie Protector found it online almost two months later.
Lessons learned? If you see it, report it. The rules & regulations are inadequate to protect us. The industry has complete disregard for the communities in which they operate.
Our second tale comes from an idyllic suburban development just east of Grandview in Erie. The concept plan for Erie Highlands includes three innocuous “oil & gas site” designations in what appear to be pocket parks and open space. Imagine the surprise of recent owners of near-million dollar properties when fourteen characters on a pretty picture turned into a work over rig less than 100 yards from their back doors, especially when realtors had told them the wells were already plugged.
Lessons learned? Do your homework. Self-serving realtors and developers have no interest in providing more than the minimal state-mandated disclosures about nearby oil & gas developments. They will pretend property values are unaffected and will deny community meetings to inform residents of O&G operations. When you’re looking for a new home, visit the COGCC online map at http://cogccmap.state.co.us/cogcc_gis_online/ and find out where historical, current, and future O&G development may impact you.
Our final tale comes from Windsor, where in October 2017 “an old well that was plugged in 1984 began spilling oil on Colorado 60 east of U.S. 287.” Operators in the region were quick to respond to the well that had been drilled by an unknown operator in the 1920s or 1930s, but “an estimated 5 gallons to 6 gallons every minute” were spilling from the well.
Lessons learned? Oil & gas is forever. This blight upon our neighborhoods, open spaces, and environment has far-reaching implications. Operators come and go, but their impacts will remain long after we forget their names.