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Natural gas development on the horizon

El Paso County is not known for fossil fuels – oil or natural gas – but with the discovery of the Niobrara shale formation underlying parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado, that could change.A report prepared by the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the Niobrara shale formation holds 520 million barrels of oil and .95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. At least two companies are looking for oil and natural gas in the Niobrara, which underlies eastern El Paso County.The Niobrara was discovered a year ago, which sparked an interest in El Paso County.”We don’t have any oil and gas [production] in the county, but we’ve gotten about a thousand inquiries in the last six months,” said county assessor Mark Lowderman. However, the majority of the inquiries have been about properties and severed mineral rights.To determine the status, Lowderman said to check the deed. If the mineral rights have been severed from a property, the legal description is followed by a phrase such as “except for subsurface mineral rights located thereon,” he said.Meanwhile, property owners near Meadow Lake Airport have been getting calls from land men who want to negotiate oil and gas leases, said Sandra Martin, resident of Meadow Lake.The county has already issued temporary use permits for natural gas exploration, said Craig Dossey, project manager for the El Paso County Development Services Department. Five temporary use permits have been issued to two companies: Texas-based ETOCO and Pine Ridge Oil and Gas LLC, headquartered in Denver, Dossey said.The county-issued ETOCO permits are for two locations east of Colorado Springs and south of Highway 94, Dossey said.The county’s use permit covers surface activities, such as storm water discharge, and access to roads and signage, but the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission issues the actual drilling permits in the state, whether the land is state or privately owned, he said.According to its Web site, the commission has approved drilling permits for three Pine Ridge wells east of Fountain, Colo.The state-issued permit for the Pine Ridge wells shows the company is targeting the Niobrara shale formation at a maximum total depth of 4,680 feet.Drilling in the NiobraraA U.S. Geological Survey report estimated that the Niobrara holds 520 million barrels of oil and .95 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.A combination of new technologies, such as horizontal drilling and drilling more than one well from a single well head, along with hydraulic fracturing; make it cheaper and easier to extract more energy from formations like the Niobrara.The American Petroleum Institute describes hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”) as a process whereby a combination of water, sand and chemicals is forced down a well at such high pressure that the surrounding shale fractures and releases its carbon content.The API lists sodium chloride, polyacrylamide, ethylene glycol, borate salts, sodium and potassium carbonate, glutaraldehyde, guar gum, citric acid and isopropanol as common components of fracking fluids.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified diesel, which contains 11 “enes,” including benzene, tuolene, ethylbenzene, xylene and naphthalene, as common fracking fluid components, as well as ammonium chloride and zirconium nitrate, to name a few.Representing drilling companies and companies that manufacture fracking liquids, the API contends that state regulations ensure wells are drilled safely and that the amount of chemicals in fracking fluids is too small to be a health risk.But Sandra Martin, president of Protect Our Wells, a nonprofit group that advocates for private well owners, said the idea of injecting solvents like benzene, a known carcinogen causing leukemia and lymphoma, into the ground worries her.”Accidents happen and it only takes one,” Martin said. “Someone makes the wrong decision and our water gets contaminated.”Martin said she was surprised by the amount of truck traffic that exploration and possible production would bring into an area. “This is not a simple hole in the ground … this is going to impact our lives,” she said.”People have to start looking at this right now and not be taken in by how much money they might make. No matter what they make, it may cost them their lifestyle.”Martin said private well owners should have their water tested now to establish a water quality baseline, but it’s hard to know what to test for because drillers in Colorado aren’t required to disclose what’s in their fracking fluids, according to Although Wyoming adopted rules requiring disclosure last year; by the end of the year, the Wyoming Oil and Gas Commission had issued 11 exemptions to protect company trade secrets.There is no regulation at the federal level, either. As reported at, the energy bill passed by Congress and signed into law in 2005 exempts fracking fluids from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.In December, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, said his department is considering whether to require companies to disclose the contents of fracking fluids when used on public land.Fracking fluids aren’t the only problem.An article in the Nov. 17, 2008, issue of “Scientific American” documented the case of a house that exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways that allowed gas to seep into the house’s residential water supply.The county’s land development code has few provisions for oil and gas drilling activities, but the development services department is considering drafting regulations for surface activities, especially if any exploration wells go into production, Dossey said. Because it takes time for wells to be put into production, he said the county has time to develop the new rules.Learn moreMartin has invited Dr. Robert Reynolds from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to speak at the next Protect Our Wells meeting.Reynold’s background is in oil and gas, including plentiful experience with fracking, she said.The meeting will be held Monday, March 28 at 6:30 p.m. at the Meadow Lake Airport hangar or at a larger hangar, if there is a big turnout. Check for last minute location changes.

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