CSU study: Emissions low during fracking
When it comes to new natural gas development, emissions are noticeably greater during the flowback process than during actual drilling or fracking.
That was one of the key findings in a much-anticipated analysis of emissions from natural gas drilling and completion operations in Garfield County. The report was presented to county commissioners Tuesday morning.
The study, which originated in 2011 when discussions between the county and researchers at Colorado State University started, is unique for several reasons, said Jeffrey Collett, head of the CSU Atmospheric Science Department.
Specifically, the study looked at the new well development process, on which there is very little data, according to Collett. The more-than-three-year study looked at emissions during the drilling, fracking and flowback processes — which occurs after fracking — for new well development.
Secondly, most studies specifically monitor for methane while the CSU report included methane and volatile organic compounds, some of which can, in certain quantities, be harmful to human health and contribute to ozone.
The study did not look at possible health impacts from those emissions, but the new and robust amount of activity-specific emissions data will be used for future research, including a health risk assessment by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The consistent theme in the data was, regardless of what was being measured, the greatest emission across the board occurred during the flowback process, Collett said.
For example, the median methane emissions during flowback was 40 grams per second compared to a median of 2.8 grams per second during fracking and a median of 2 grams per second during drilling. The trend continued down a list of VOCs also measured, some common with natural gas development
That finding was not necessarily a surprise — the fracking process involves injecting water and other substances into the ground, while flowback is the flowing of gas, water and other materials upward out of the ground — but until now, there has been little field work on emissions from process to process, Collett said, noting this study will be instrumental in driving future research not just in Colorado but across the country.
Collett also acknowledged the access provided by industry — which had a handful of representatives in attendance Tuesday — in the county. He also clarified that financial contributions from industry players came in the form of gifts, which disqualified them from having a say in the scientific process. Industry paid for the remainder of the $1.77 million study after Garfield County contributed $1 million.
Asked several times by Commissioner John Martin if any factors or influences may invalidate or call the study into question, Collett answered, “No.”
The only limitation, Collett said, was the decline in drilling activity. For that reason, the researchers continued collecting data through this spring. Researchers originally intended on completing data collection at the end of 2015.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky thanked the industry both for the money contributed and what he called “unprecedented access” for most industries.
“The fact you all participated in this is a big deal,” Jankovsky said.
Front Range assessment
The Garfield County assessment is expected to complement a similar study that will be wrapping up in the next month on the Front Range. That analysis is looking at the fracking, flowback and production phases, the third of which was not included in the Garfield County study.
Collett noted that the Front Range, particularly Weld County, and the western Colorado’s Piceance Basin are the two primary regions in the state for oil and gas activity.
So far in 2016 Garfield County has produced 144,893,794 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) of natural gas and 433,059 barrels of oil, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. That same data shows Weld County has produced 158,710,028 Mcf of gas and 26,667,896 barrels of oil.
During remarks at the end of Tuesday’s presentation, David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, reminded Collett and others of a recent updated assessment by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The assessment found the mean natural resources in the Mancos Shale of the West Slope’s Piceance Basin to be the second-largest assessment of potential continuous gas resources ever conducted by USGS.
Ludlam, who said participation on the part of local operators was proof of their commitment to a scientific and data-driven approach, cautioned that he felt making any assumptions from the data would be premature.
The report presented Tuesday was a summary, and the full data set from the study will be available on the CSU website — http://hdl.handle.net/10217/172972 — sometime around July 1. Collett expects the Front Range findings to be released by the end of July.
Data from the two studies will be used by CDPHE to conduct a health risk assessment that will likely look at the potential health impacts, long- and short-term, from exposure to certain chemicals during various phases of resource extraction, the Post Independent previously reported.
The health risk assessment was one of nine recommendations from a governor’s oil and gas task force in early 2015.
It directed CDPHE to seek funding for the assessment, and stated that research “should use the latest and most accurate data, including the air quality monitoring data from emission and dispersion studies currently being conducted by Colorado State University in Garfield County and the North Front Range, and shall be conducted in a manner to comply with current scientific standards.”
Collett said CDPHE previously indicated it intends to start that process in the near future.
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