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Aug 16, 2011 8:02 PM by Andy Koen

Energy exploration sparks debate

An oil boom is underway in our state but the drilling methods to reach it have many landowners concerned. The massive Niobrara oil shale deposit covers an area that begins near Colorado Springs and stretches north into Wyoming. It's buried 2 miles below the ground level and about a mile beneath a rock shelf that serves as the base of of the Denver Water Basin.

Drills in Weld County recently hit a big pocket of oil in the Niobrara. That find along with higher crude oil prices and improvements drilling efficiencies have energy companies from around the globe showing interest in drilling here.

"Whenever that happens it gets people's attention," said Vince Matthews, Director of the Colorado Geological Survey. "So, a boom has started of people coming in leasing land, permitting wells and drilling wells."

In fact, some companies have already started contacting landowners about leasing and permits. The landowners, in turn, called on their elected leaders who put together a pair of meetings this week to discuss the issue.

State Representative Marsha Looper and El Paso County Commissioner Amy Lathen brought together a panel of state regulators and law makers to answer questions Tuesday morning.

"This really began by us being approached by those land owners saying, 'hey, we don't know what to do,'" explained Lathen.

The primary concern raised at the meeting has to do with the environmental impact of the drilling techniques themselves. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", have enabled oil companies to reach deposits that were once out of reach. The rock is artificial fractured by pumping a solution of sand, water and chemicals into the well applying pressure on the rock. The rock breaks and the oil or natural gas stored inside is released.

Because the Niobrara sits below the ground water, Looper says there is concern that the chemicals could pollute the groundwater.

"The last thing we need to have happen is to have large scale industrial oil and gas production come in and negatively impact our ground water levels substantially," Looper said.

However, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), which advocates for oil and natural gas exploration, says the ground water will be protected.

"Before hydraulic fracturing is conducted, several layers of cement and steel are used to isolate drinking water aquifers to ensure they are protected," explained Tisha Conoly Schuller, President and CEO of COGA. "These cement and steel layers also ensure that oil and gas only moves to the pipe at the surface."

State regulation requires well operators to monitor all aspects of hydraulic fracturing. The records are kept for five years.

Looper and Lathen both say that talks are underway to begin revising land use regulations. Elbert County Commissioner Kurt Schlegel says he and his colleagues are already drafting revised rules for oil and gas exploration in their county.

"I think that the producers have gone a long way to improve their drilling techniques and their safety mechanisms," Schlegel said. "However, somebody still needs to look over their shoulders and regulate that process to make sure that they follow the rules and do it correctly."

Another informational meeting will be held Thursday August 18, from 6:00 - 8:00 p.m. at the El Paso County Public Services Facility at 3255 Akers Drive.

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