The Bureau of Land Management’s Southwest Colorado Resource Advisory Council met Friday, Nov. 16, at the Devil’s Thumb Golf Course in Delta. The RAC provides direction and support to the BLM and includes citizens and elected officials, as well industry representatives, environmentalists, OHV enthusiasts, and recreationists.
The agenda included a presentation on hydraulic fracturing by Halliburton, Inc.; a presentation by the Tamarisk Coalition, and reports from field managers of various BLM districts in southwest Colorado.
Halliburton Technical Manager Mike Eberhard presented the company's version of hydraulic fracturing, a process used in natural gas recovery throughout Colorado. The source of much controversy, frac’ing, as the process is commonly known, involves the injection of frac’ing compounds, usually water and friction-reducing additives, into gas-bearing layers of rock in order to fracture the rock. Fluidized sands are then pumped into the fractures in order to open them up, allowing trapped gas to escape.
The controversy around frac’ing tends to involve the types of chemicals used by drilling companies (not usually disclosed due to proprietary concerns) and allegations of aquifer contamination by those chemicals.
Eberhard explained that a drill bore—the hole drilled to access gas-bearing formations, usually 13-5/8 inches at the surface—is encased, or cemented, throughout its length to isolate the bore and its contents from aquifers. In addition, he said, gas-bearing formations are often much deeper than water-bearing formations, anywhere from several thousand to 30,000 feet deep in some regions.
Eberhard took pains to explain that the chemicals used in frac’ing are nothing more than household chemicals such as you might find in laundry detergent, window cleaner, even ice cream. Guar, for example, used primarily by the food industry, is used to thicken the fluid so that the sands are carried farther over the horizontal distances used in modern directional drilling techniques. Other frac’ing chemicals include biocides (to eliminate guar-loving bacteria) and friction-reducers to make pumping easier at great depths.
However, some RAC members remained unconvinced.
Andrew Gulliford, Durango-area resident and vice-chair of the RAC, asked Eberhard, “How do you account for news accounts of people saying their horses are sick, they are sick, they have to sell their land but they can’t sell it?”
Eberhard replied, “I’m not in a position to discuss those cases. I spent the first 10 years of my career standing on a blender checking the [frac’ing] fluid. I’ve handled this stuff my whole life and I’ve breathed it. I feel very comfortable that the compounds that we are using are not a danger to my grandchildren. Except for coal-bed methane, everything that we are doing is a mile underground. The water that’s there was laid down thousands of years ago.”
One audience member questioned the validity of reports that diesel fuel is one of the fluids used in frac’ing compounds. Eberhard replied that Halliburton prides itself on being “a zero-diesel company,” but verified that diesel is used in some operations as a guar carrier. He also volunteered the information that Napalm was one of the first carriers used -- "but not any more,” he said.
When the fracturing and propping processes are completed and the pressure is released from above, frac’ing fluids return to the surface while sands remain in place. Eberhard stated that up to 50 percent of the frac’ing compound remains in the rock, usually trapped in its pores. Gas recovery declines sharply within the first year as pressure is released within the gas-bearing formation.
Fluids that return to the surface are treated with biocides and reused. Recovered fluids are kept in lined surface pits or steel tanks and include naturally contaminated fossil waters released along with the gas.
Eberhard concluded his presentation by offering to present his information to other groups. “I don’t have horns, I don’t have the hat on for a reason.
"We’re just here trying to educate people.”
Tim Carlson of the Grand Junction-based Tamarisk Coalition brought RAC members up to speed on research and developments in the fight against tamarisk, an invasive species threatening riparian systems throughout the West.
Originally from the Middle East, the tamarisk, also known as salt cedar, has a reputation of being a voracious drinker. Carlson clarified that the tamarisk drinks no more than native species such as cottonwood or willow, but that because its roots grow much deeper, up to 100 feet, it is able to colonize a much greater area. As its range expands, Carlson said, that translates to a loss of about a quarter-of-a million acre feet of water per year, about the same amount used by the city of Denver.
Carlson listed a number of techniques used for tamarisk control, including grazing goats, heavy machinery, herbicides and the tamarisk leaf beetle, released in 2004 with significant success. Beginning with a release of 20,000 bugs in three spots on the Colorado River—the Potash boat launch, Williams Bottom, and Dewey Bridge—this year the beetle twice defoliated tamarisk along 20 miles of river and has spread up the Dolores as far as Gateway as well as to the Book Cliffs near Grand Junction. Native plants, said Carlson, remain unharmed.
However, Carlson stressed, “Killing tamarisks is not the goal; bringing the river system back to its native state should be the goal.” Success in tamarisk control has met with unexpected consequences, such as the flourishing of other non-native species and the possibility of massive sediment movement during floods as dying root systems loosen their grip on beaches.
Carlson encouraged revegetation with salt-tolerant species and species adapted to the appropriate ecotype. He also said that soils will need to be re-inoculated with the natural fungal mycorrhizae present in living soils. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has approved $1 million in matching funds for tamarisk control and revegetation, he said, and leaf beetles will soon be available free from county weed managers.
Carlson cited water loss from the Colorado River system as 5 – 8 percent of the total water in the system. “The cost to provide new water sources through desalinization or the import of water from the Mississippi River is 10 to 100 times more expensive than tamarisk control,” Carlson said.
Kenny McDaniel of the BLM’s Gunnison Field Office announced that its lawsuit with LKA mining has been ordered into a settlement process. “As of today, we have not reached an agreement,” McDaniel said.
LKA International owns the Golden Wonder gold mine and the Ute Ule silver mine and mill near Lake City. According to their website, LKA currently plans to permit and develop a new drift approximately 1,000 feet below the current workings of the Golden Wonder Mine.
According to papers filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, LKA is currently engaged in legal proceedings with Ken Orvis and Lance Barker over the Golden Wonder Mine, as well as with the BLM over cleanup of the Ute Ule silver mine.
“If we are unsuccessful in reaching a cost-effective arrangement with the BLM and are held responsible for the entire amounts associated with the cleanup the financial consequences could render the Company insolvent,” reads the SEC form dated May 2007.
McDaniel also informed the RAC of a proposed antler-shed closure to protect the Gunnison sage grouse. The proposal, supported by 17 groups and agencies including stock growers, real-estate interests, and the High Country Citizens’ Alliance, would close certain areas of the Gunnison Basin to antler hunters during the sage grouse’s lekking season.
“There’s big money in anter shed hunting,” McDaniel said. “The Gunnison Basin has some trophy elk and deer.” Antler hunters present an enforcement issue during seasonal road closures designed to protect the sensitive sage grouse, McDaniel said.
Dan Morse, RAC member from Crested Butte, suggested the RAC pass a resolution in support of the BLM’s proposed antler shed closure, and Alan Staehle of Ouray County later proposed such a resolution in a motion seconded by journalist Betsy Marston and passed without further discussion.
Of particular note to residents of San Miguel and Montrose counties was Barb Sharrow’s report from the Uncompahgre Field Office. “Energy Fuels is looking at building a uranium mill in Paradox Valley,” said Sharrow. The mill would be built on private land, over which the BLM has no regulatory authority. The state requires a three-to-five year authorization process, Sharrow said.
“Uranium mine plans continue to come in,” said Sharrow. “There has been so much interest in the last few years that people were dropping claim markers out of helicopters.” Although the uranium mill in Canon City is closed for the time being, a mill in Blanding, Utah is starting to accept some ore. “We’re getting some notices that peple are starting to do stuff out there,” she said.
Steve Beverlin of the Dolores Field Office, whose district includes Colorado’s only geyser—“You didn’t know there was a geyser in Colorado, did you?” he asked attendees—reported a recent roundup of 87 horses in the Disappointment Valley herd area, leaving 37 horses to roam. He also cited aspen health as a major concern in his area, with 10 to 30 percent of aspen dead and dying.
All BLM agents cited declining budgets and staff turnover as standout problems within their offices as well. “All federal agencies are trying to cope with a shrinking pot of money,” Beverlin said.