The word âfrackingâ has come to mean drilling in general for oil and gas-- and a major concern for communities and environmentalists in Colorado and elsewhere.In reality the process of hydraulic fracturing is a specialized procedure used to create cracks in shale deposits thousands of feet underground which in turn releases trapped natural gas. There are hundreds of fracked wells in Garfield County. Often you can see them from the highway. Recently Aspen Public Radio got a tour of a fracking operation run by WPX Energy near Parachute. Hear the story by APR's Elise Thatcher below. See a slideshow of photographs of the rig by APR's Roger Adams HERE.
Jeff Kirtland: âOk, I just wanted to give you kind of a point of view of what our driller is looking atâ¦â
Jeff Kirtland handles communications for WPX, and is ushering us into the brain of a rig. Weâre now several stories high in an air conditioned room about the size of a small RV. Its pretty calm and quiet.
Kirtland: âThis is like living in the Hilton, huh David?â
David Duke : âYes sir.â
David Duke is sitting in a chair surrounded by computer screens, manipulating a joystick. Duke is the driller. Heâs controlling a drill bit spinning thousands of feet underground and eyeballing his progress with updates on the screens.
âWith all these things it tells us where the bit is, like right now, with this tally, Iâve reset my depth and after Iâve accomplished itâll self track and tell me exactly, where the bottom, the bottom of the casing is, and itâs at four thousand, four hundred and forty feet right now. Approximately--it's really close to that.
Through the window, we see workers feeding pipe into the well Duke is drilling. Theyâve spent a lot of time doing that. Again, Jeff Kirtland.
âThese guys work twelve hours a day, for fourteen days, they get two weeks off, and then they come back and do it again.â
At this drilling pad theyâre on the eighth of nearly two dozen wells.
Kirtland: âThanks for having us! Weâll bring pizzas next time!â Laughs. âBe real careful going down hereâ¦â
Reporter: Then we leave this cool haven, the brain of the drilling rig, for the rest of the tour. This is the world you might think of when talking about drilling. Thereâs heavy machinery everywhere, and workers are stained with grease and dirt. Below the brain center, thereâs a series of pipes for each newly drilled well.
âWhat you can see underneath the rig here is the blowout preventer, thatâs one of the major safety aspects of all drilling operations is this big valve that sits under the floor, over the wellhead, that ensures that the pressure stays consistent. If that thing fails thatâs when you have problems.â
The entire pad spans about an acre and a half. And on one side there are the sludgy leftovers brought up by drilling. Theyâre called cuttings, and still have some oil mixed in. Kirtland holds out his hand.
âThese are pellets that have microorganisms infused in them. Once they hit the moist cuttings, they will start to eat those hydrocarbons to a non-detect level.â
And creating a potting soil that will help reseed this pad in a few months. Once the wells are put in, much of the heavy equipment is removed and the pad shrinks down.
As our little group continues its tour, thereâs fracking going on deep below us. Recycled water and chemicals are being pumped down into the newly drilled wells. After they have been hydraulically fractured or fracked, natural gas will flow up to the surface.
Fracking depends upon heavy pumps that need a lot of power. Thatâs no small issue in this rural location and it comes from almost a mile away, down the road and around a hill. This part of the operation is subcontracted out to Halliburton.
Tony from Halliburton: âBy the way, welcome up here to the frack pad. Everything that you see thatâs marked off in yellow, is a chemical restricted areaâ¦â
Itâs arguably the most striking part of the tour. A Halliburton supervisor named Tony shows us around an old well pad, where a mass of pulsating hoses writhe on the ground. Theyâre between two rows of semi trucks.
âSo going between those trucks if they were to snap, we gotta an issue going on. It is going to be loudâ¦â
Engines on the back of these trucks are pumping the thousands of gallons of sand, reused water, and chemicals needed for fracking...at high pressure into those hoses. They connect back to the newly drilled wells, freeing up natural gas in the shale rock below..
Controversy over drilling and fracking is growing, and Colorado residents will decide this fall whether to let communities restrict them. Jeff Kirtland points to safety regulations, and says WPX Energy goes above and beyond them just to make sure. They werenât involved in benzene pollution from a spill last year near Parachute. Still, the company had to convince Garfield County that their version of fracking was a good idea.
âSo as we began to demonstrate that our innovations and our efficiencies are really geared toward really making everybodyâs life easier, from an impact standpoint, then they began to see-- you know, allowed us to you know carry on in doing that. They trusted us in that regard.â
This fall voters will decide whether they agree, too.