Venting from carbon-dioxide well raises concerns, couple says
A Pleasant View couple remains shaken by a recent incident in which venting from an exploratory carbon-dioxide well caused another family to flee their home the night of June 5.
John and Sharon Wolf say although Kinder Morgan’s response to the incident was swift, they are concerned about potential health threats in the future related to the production of CO2, an odorless gas that is sucked from the vast McElmo Dome geologic formation stretching across Montezuma and Dolores counties. The gas is then piped to Texas, where it is used to squeeze more oil out of played-out wells.
The Wolfs say they are also concerned that there are few resources to help local citizens worried about the potential effects of living near CO2 wells or other types of energy development – other than relying on the company doing the drilling.
“When there has been a concern, their [Kinder Morgan’s] position is they are going to be here for a long time and they want to have a good relationship with the community,” said Sharon Wolf. “But nobody had told us this was going to be happening.”
What happened the night of June 5 was that the company – without notifying neighbors – began venting carbon dioxide and other gases from a new exploratory well on private land just off County Road CC. A member of a neighboring family began to feel ill, so, worried about the emissions and a strange smell emanating from the well, they decided to spend the night in Cortez.
That family declined to talk with the Free Press, but according to a Kinder Morgan spokesperson, they were compensated for their stay in town.
John and Sharon Wolf, however, who are three-quarters of a mile from the well, live with Sharon’s elderly mother and felt it would be upsetting and harmful to her to be removed from the home in the middle of the night, so they decided to stay put unless they absolutely had to leave. Both families had contacted Kinder Morgan, and someone with the company came out and shut down the venting, eventually deciding to resume it only when a strong breeze was blowing to disperse the gases.
In addition, Kinder Morgan tested the air outside the Wolfs’ home and eventually installed an air monitor.
In emails, a spokesperson for the company told the Free Press that no one had been endangered by the venting.
But the Wolfs remain worried. John said he is concerned because he lives downhill from the well and CO2 is heavier than surrounding air. Although the gas is not actually poisonous, it can smother people by driving out oxygen. In 1986, at Lake Nyos, a crater lake in Cameroon, Africa, 1,700 people died when the lake belched forth a cloud of carbon dioxide from a subterranean pocket of magma.
John Wolf said he became concerned that if there should be a leak from the well, “we’re going to go to sleep one night and won’t wake up.”
So he called the Montezuma County Health Department to try to get information on what levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were considered safe and what was the best way to monitor the substance. Eventually he got a call back from an official who said, “We’ll do the same thing for you that we have set up in Mancos [regarding neighbors of an illegal gold mill]. If you or your family get sick from these CO2 discharges and you can prove it with a note from your doctor, the county will give you the information you need [regarding gas levels and safety].”
John Wolf said the answer infuriated him. “I think we’re the only family in this situation. I don’t know that there is another family that lives in the bottom of a dip like we do, next to a CO2 well. What are we supposed to do?”
He said he understands the need for jobs and supports development, but that the county commissioners seem more concerned about bringing in revenues than protecting citizens’ health and safety. Kinder Morgan is the county’s largest single taxpayer by far, providing roughly 40 percent of property-tax monies.
“Is the county’s only concern that whoever moves in here gets to make as much money as they possibly can?” John asked.
He said when Kinder Morgan obtained the county permit required for the well, a provision of the permit was that air quality would be protected.
“It’s not like I’m asking the county to change the zoning, I’m asking them to follow their own laws,” he said. “I’m asking them what is bad air quality. Oh, no, they can’t tell us that till we’re dead.”
He said he and Sharon also tried contacting the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, but an official there was similarly unhelpful, and ultimately they had to hunt around on the Internet to ascertain what were safe and unsafe levels of gases in the atmosphere.
Sharon said when she spoke with a COGCC field inspector, he told the Wolfs they needed to contact the state health department. “I said, ‘if you’re monitoring air quality and there’s something wrong, don’t you communicate with the health department?’ Nope, that wasn’t his job.”
However, she said, he did come to the site several days later and stopped by their house, “but by that time Kinder Morgan had already been here several times and had monitors on site.”
Likewise, he declined to give them information on what constituted safe levels of CO2, the Wolfs said. “He said it was not his job. His job was air quality but not to tell people what good and bad air quality was?” John said sarcastically. “We just asked him to look in the Colorado gas and oil book but he acted like it was secret information.”
The Wolfs said a local resource is needed where citizens with questions about any type of oil and gas production can obtain neutral, reliable information. While they said Kinder Morgan’s response to the venting problem was immediate and helpful, they don’t believe people should have to depend for information and aid on the companies doing the drilling and production.
“Basically you’re relying on Kinder Morgan’s good business sense, which they do have right now,” John said.
But he is concerned that different companies may not have the same long-term commitment to work with area residents.
“Now, on BLM land south and west of us, there are vast amounts of natural-gas resources and there is no interest on the part of the county in helping or protecting people,” John said. “They just want to make as much money as they can.”
Concerns about the boom in energy development around the country are prompting grassroots efforts to rein in drilling, or adopt more-stringent regulations to protect health and safety.
In Colorado, there is a push to give local governments more say over where drilling can take place. In 2012, the residents of Longmont voted to enact a ban on fracking (hydraulic fracturing, a technique used in some types of energy extraction). The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the state’s oil and gas association sued Longmont, and on July 24, a Boulder County District Judge ruled that Longmont’s ban was illegal.
However, a group called Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy is trying to get a measure on the November ballot that would give local governments the power to create and enforce environmental regulations that are stricter than the state’s. The energy industry opposes the measure, saying it could create a hodgepodge of different rules that would hamstring energy exploration and production.
Another measure being pushed for the November ballot would increase the required buffer between homes and drilling rigs from the current 500 feet to 2,000 feet, which industry officials say would eliminate a great deal of potential development.
Jimbo Buickerood of the Durango-based San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental nonprofit, said the Wolfs are unfortunately correct that citizens can’t rely on county or state government to help them deal with problems related to energy extraction.
Buickerood visited the site of the June 5 venting in Pleasant View and said he smelled an acrid, tangy odor that he would not have wanted to breathe for long.
He said he agreed with the Wolfs that the COGCC’s response to their situation was “pretty disappointing.”
“It was disappointing they weren’t able to come right out and give some assurances, ‘This is what the safe levels are,’ and so on. You would think the CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and environment] would be involved as well.”
Montezuma County has generally avoided getting involved in environmental-health concerns, Buickerood said. County health departments in general tend to focus on public-health issues such as vaccinations rather than environmental issues.
“Another piece behind the whole situation, as I understand it, is that there is no mandatory requirement for Kinder Morgan to have contacted local residents before their venting operation,” Buickerood said. “I think the message to Kinder Morgan is they need to realize they’re not drilling holes out in the [Canyons of the Ancients] national monument, they’re moving into residential areas.”
When venting is done, it’s because the company is checking what exactly is in a well, he said. “They’re releasing gas from strata where they’re not entirely aware of what’s in there.”
The topography, the wind, humidity and temperature all are factors in how emissions affect neighbors, he said.
And aside from health and safety concerns, the Wolfs said, there is another down side to the ongoing industrialization of rural areas as companies plumb the earth for energy resources. Huge trucks roar by their home – one every couple of minutes – from early in the morning until late at night, seven days a week. Sitting on their patio, a visitor had to shout to be heard whenever a truck passed. “This is supposed to go on for quite a while – like four years,” Sharon said.
“We raised our family 50 miles outside of Philly and 70 miles from New York City,” John said “We came here to teach on the Navajo Nation and for me to recover from a stroke. This is it for us. This is our dream house. Now we’re back living on Route 22.”
The trucks, operated by a plethora of companies including Kinder Morgan, Skanska, Halliburton and others, are hauling materials to and from other wells and the site of a compressor station and industrial facility, all in the Cow Canyon area west of Pleasant View and northwest of Cortez.
According to an article on businesswire.com, Kinder Morgan announced in May that it would spend approximately $671 million to expand its infrastructure in Southwest Colorado and New Mexico, of which $344 million will be for the Cow Canyon area. Plans there include 16 new wells, the compressor
station, and a disposal well for produced wa ter left after carbon-dioxide extraction. “As they expand their operations throughout Montezuma and Dolores counties, incidents like this are going to happen again and again,” Buickerood said.
Pete Dronkers of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, another environmental nonprofit, said companies that do any type of energy extraction should have to give specific answers about what is being vented from wells, because the substances can include methane, benzene, toluene, and even radioactive components.
He said unfortunately, the COGCC is “more or less designed to facilitate the fast and efficient permitting of these projects.”
“You would think it’s a watchdog but it’s really a pro-development arm of government,” Dronkers said.
His group is obtaining an infrared camera that can see volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons not visible to the naked eye that are being released from drilling sites, but they will have to share it with people in Texas and California, so there will be a backlog of demand for its use, he said.
He said people with concerns about the health impacts of oil and gas drilling can email him at pdronkers@earthworksaction. org.
A citizens’ group called Frack Free Montezuma – an offshoot of Frack Free Colorado – is being formed and has had several meetings in Mancos, according to Joanie Trussel, who is involved with the group. Its goal is to provide more education about issues surrounding fracking, a controversial extraction technique that is used by Kinder Morgan as well as natural-gas companies.
She said the group is going to have a showing of the film “Dear Governor Hickenlooper,” which discusses concerns about fracking, in Cortez on Sept. 12. The venue and exact time have not yet been set.
Frack Free Montezuma is going to set up a Facebook page in the future. In the meantime, citizens can obtain information at http://www.frackfreecolorado.com/.
For the Wolfs, more information is welcome, but nothing will alter the fact that the proximity of energy development has dramatically changed their quality of life.
“I wish Kinder Morgan weren’t here [in their neighborhood],” Sharon said. “I wish we didn’t have any of this [surrounding development], but since it’s being done I’m glad it is Kinder Morgan, with their level of concern for how they interact in the community. I appreciate that.
“I wish there would have been no need for that kind of interaction. I don’t want to be in an adversarial relationship with them, so whenever something happens they don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s Wolf again’.
“Kinder Morgan should be proud of the people they have working for them. They’re good.
“But,” she added, as another truck rumbled up the road, raising a cloud of dust, “I hate it.”