Weld County is located in northern Colorado just east of Rocky Mountain National Park, the headwaters of the Platte and Colorado Rivers. Weld County leads the state in oil and gas production with over 20,000 active oil and gas wells. Weld County, the largest county in Colorado, shares a geological formation called Niobrara Shale with Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska but the majority of the formation lies in Colorado. The Niobrara Shale formation is a very thin deposit of fossil fuels located between 3,000 and 14,000 feet below the surface of the earth. Horizontal drilling technology has allowed companies to tap into the thin (400 feet thick) shale formation, producing up to 12 times as much oil and gas as was previously possible. Companies like Chesapeake Energy own over 1,200 square miles of leases on the Niobrara and have recently partnered with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Co. in a $1.3 billion dollar deal to explore options in this region.
Many people are concerned about the industrial use of water in this drought stricken region of Colorado. Oil and gas companies use millions of gallons of water and thousands of chemicals in the process of fracking each drill site. With water already scarce in Colorado, increased fracking operations threaten traditional uses of water, such as agriculture and recreation, as well as posing risks for polluting ground water.
Despite the drought, a large flood in September 2013 swamped over 17,000 acres, destroyed homes, roads and crops, left residents stranded and even took lives. Among that damage was much of the industry’s infrastructure in the floodplain. Colorado’s regulations lack protection for creeks and rivers in this region. The result is many toxic chemicals in harm’s way, contaminating flood waters and soil. Well pads were flooded, condensate tanks uprooted and overturned and pipelines broken.
After flood waters receded, oil sheen, puddles of crude oil from seperater tanks and broken pipelines were visible from the air. Authorities were tracking at least 18 known spills a week after the flood and continue to asses the damage as conditions allow them to access oil and gas sites.
In January 2013, Colorado regulators approved a rule that will require wells to be located at a distance of 500 feet from buildings, an increase from the 350 foot distance that was originally proposed. Many suburban areas in Weld County already have gas operations within that 500 foot buffer zone.
Air quality on the Front Range already fails to meet federal health standards and the oil and gas industry is a growing source of volatile organic compounds that lead to the formation of ozone. In early 2014, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission recently adopted a new set of rules intended to reduce emissions of methane and other harmful pollutants from oil and gas development, but more will still be needed to meet the federal clean air standards.
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