Is county review needed for frack water pits?
Open-air pits used to store water for hydraulic fracturing would be allowed without special permitting the same as enclosed tanks, under a proposed amendment to Garfield County’s land-use regulations.
WPX Energy requested that the county clarify its definition of facilities allowed as a “use by right” at centralized locations used for fracking operations, and whether open water pits are among them.
The request came after the company was advised last fall by county planning staff that such pits qualify as a water impoundment structure, requiring a review before receiving a permit.
WPX officials said at a meeting with county commissioners Tuesday that they have constructed several such water storage and recycling pits in recent years without a permit, and that they are not the same as larger water treatment or reserve pits associated with natural gas production sites.
The pits are used to hold produced water, that which comes up from deep underground during the drilling process, prior to it being mixed with sand and chemicals to then be injected back into wells during the fracking process that’s done to release natural gas deposits, explained Tyler Bittner, Piceance district manager for WPX.
Remote sites allow for multiple wells to be fracked from a central location, rather than having facilities at each well pad. The frack water is then filtered and returned to the pit for re-use, he said.
“I felt like this issue was resolved in 2010, and it’s not what my understanding of the code has been,” said Phil Vaughan, a former county planning commissioner and construction contractor who works closely with operators including WPX to build various oil and gas facilities.
Vaughn was referring to a January 2010 meeting between county commissioners and industry representatives to discuss the merits of using centralized, remote surface facilities to mix and pump fracking fluids to multiple well pads.
Commissioners agreed at the time that, by consolidating certain facilities, it worked to cut down on impacts such as truck traffic to and from multiple sites and the overall footprint of well pads.
WPX: PITS SAVE WATER
However, when it came to updating the county’s land-use code in more recent years to reflect that certain facilities are allowed as a use by right, temporary water storage tanks were allowed but open pits were not specifically mentioned.
Vaughan said he has been advising his clients that the pits are allowed without special permitting, while the county says it has required permits for several such storage pits built by other operators.
Water recycling pits are already subject to approval and regulation by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, WPX Regulatory Specialist Ashlee Fechino said in a Jan. 28 letter to the county commissioners.
“Water recycling pits allow WPX to recycle 100 percent of produced water used in completions, eliminating the need to use fresh water,” Fechino said of the re-use of ground water that results during the drilling process.
“It does not make sense to WPX Energy that if the produced water was placed in tanks, it would be allowed … but if the produced water is in a pit, it suddenly is considered a water impoundment subject to expensive and time-consuming permitting requirements,” she wrote.
Fred Jarman, the county’s planning director, noted that if the county amends its code to allow both tanks and open pits for storage without a review, it would apply to all operators, not just WPX.
“I was not comfortable as your director making such a wide-sweeping call on this, so we come to you as policy makers,” Jarman said.
POTENTIAL ODOR COMPLAINTS
One consideration is that open pits containing produced water could be considered a more likely source for odor complaints by nearby residents than water stored in tanks.
Odor complaints accounted for 31 percent of all oil-and-gas-related complaints last year, according to Kirby Wynn, the county’s oil and gas liaison. Water impoundment facilities are a common source of those odors, he said.
“Odor issues are among the more serious complaints we receive,” Wynn said. “It is something that gets to people, and we do try to jump on it right away.”
County commissioners ultimately agreed to formally consider a zoning text amendment that would specifically include water storage among the facilities allowed on remote fracking sites, whether kept in a tank or an open pit.
Commissioner John Martin said it was the intention when the issue was discussed in 2010 that storage of water for remote fracking operations be a permitted use.
The distinction is whether such facilities are temporary or become more permanent, he said. If a storage pit is not reclaimed after three years, or is used for something other than storage for fracking purposes, it would need to be reviewed, he said.
The proposed amendment will be the subject of a public hearing at a future commissioners meeting.
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