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Prospecting for Black Gold

Is fracking a threat to the Pikes Peak Region?

Colorado oil and gas production reached a 56-year high in 2012 and shows no signs of diminishing any time soon. Driven by the development of horizontal drilling techniques and expanded use of hydraulic fracturing, the surge in production has yet to significantly affect the Pikes Peak region, but the potential exists, given that the Denver-Julesburg Basin underlies El Paso County.

7 hours agoThe D-J Basin forms a petroleum province that has produced oil and gas since 1901 and contains the Wattenberg Gas Field, one of the largest U.S. natural gas deposits. So while El Paso County produced no oil or gas during 2012, the potential exists, as evidenced by nearly 100 existing wells in the county and 18 drilling permits issued last year.

Despite the dearth of producing wells in the region, Mustang Creek Holdings continues to advance plans for two 11,000-foot-deep exploratory wells—one in eastern El Paso County and another three miles away in Elbert County. Bob Davis, vice president of land for Mustang Creek’s parent company, NexGen Oil and Gas, reports that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved the El Paso County well permit August 29, and he hopes to receive approval from the county before year’s end.

Davis describes the proposed oil well as a “rank wildcat, a well drilled in an unproved area,” adding that the location was chosen based on 20 square miles of seismic imaging data. Despite the speculative nature of the proposed well, Mustang Creek officials remain committed to the project, in part because they plan to drill more than twice as deep as recent El Paso County wells that yielded poor results. Only vertical wells would be drilled during exploration, Davis says, and Mustang Creek “may perform a small hydraulic fracture stimulation” as part of the testing procedure.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, creates cracks in geological formations, increasing well productivity by allowing oil or natural gas to flow more readily into the wellbore. The practice has been around since 1947 and involves injecting fluids—water, sand and chemicals—into the formation. The hydraulic pressure opens fractures and forces sand into them to keep them open, thereby allowing oil and gas to flow. The chemicals, most of which have common household uses, serve a variety of purposes and make up only one half of one percent of the fracking fluid.

Today’s concerns about contaminated drinking water near fracking operations stem in part from horizontal drilling techniques that significantly increase the reach of fractures. But Davis points to oil and gas regulations and industry practices that aim to eliminate contamination of drinking water aquifers, which typically lie less than 500 feet beneath the surface or, in the case of the Mustang Creek wells, more than 8,500 feet from the target zones.

“The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requires all wells to be constructed with cemented surface and production casing to isolate freshwater aquifers from the hydrocarbon zone,” says Davis. “In addition ... Mustang Creek plans to run an intermediate string of casing, providing an added layer of protection.” Davis adds that the steel casing and surrounding layers of cement protect drinking water aquifers, noting that the surface casing must extend 50 feet below the base of the freshwater aquifer to prevent fluids associated with oil and gas development from finding their way into the aquifer.

After a specialized well survey determines a well is capable of producing oil or natural gas, “a tubing string is set to provide an added layer of separation between the oil or natural gas stream and the freshwater aquifer,” says Davis. “The multiple layers of steel and cement ... provide several layers of protection to prevent the contamination of freshwater zones.” Davis also cites recently adopted groundwater sampling requirements that include collection of an initial baseline water sample and subsequent monitoring to ensure no contaminants enter the freshwater aquifer.

Meanwhile, researchers are studying various tracers that would allow contamination to be traced back to its source. FracEnsure is currently conducting a field test of a tracer made with nano rust, a harmless substance detectable at low concentrations. Chemistry professor Andrew Barron believes the nano rust tracer can settle questions about whether oil and gas companies are damaging drinking water and, if so, allow communities to determine who is at fault.

A second company, BaceTrace, also hopes to complete a field test before the end of the year. Company CEO Justine Chow came up with a potentially revolutionary solution—artificial DNA. Each tracer contains a unique DNA sequence, and each well would be assigned a unique tracer, allowing a precise accounting of sources of contamination.

So if and when the oil and gas boom reaches the Pikes Peak region, developments in tracer technology could provide definitive answers to important questions that feed the ongoing controversy over fracking.