Wayne and Myrna Brautigam moved up to Wyoming for retirement when Fort Collins started to get too busy. They bought a 10-acre plot in the prairie and built a home and a shop where Wayne could work on cars. It’s about 20 minutes outside of Cheyenne in a subdivision with wheat fields on its edges and water from a well.
And an oil field creeping up to their front door.
Industry wasn’t always one of their nearest neighbors. Oil and gas production in Laramie County never produced much, not compared to the success of the Powder River Basin to the north or the gas fields to the east.
Now the Denver Basin, where the Brautigams’ home is located, is an up and coming field, and the couple is grappling with the unexpected baggage that the state’s main economic driver carries behind it. They don’t like the flaring or the muddy roads with heavy truck traffic, however courteous the drivers may be. Most recently, a common practice in the oil and gas fields has them alarmed, along with a number of their neighbors.
The largest operator in the basin, EOG Resources, has proposed a number of injection wells under a mile from two subdivisions, Triple Crown Estates and Durham. The wells would be used to pump oil and gas waste water thousands of feet beneath the surface into the Sussex aquifer, a waterlogged band of fine to medium grade sandstone bound by shale.
The proposals by EOG have not been approved yet. A public comment period ends this week, and a number of locals are weighing in, asking the state to keep the injection wells away from their houses which rely on well water.
State regulators say their rules dictate safe construction and neither the well nor the aquifer will leak toxins if done correctly. Federal regulators have to give the okay to allow waste water in a potential water source and are considering the one proposal that’s made it to them so far. The company says it’s committed to doing this safely and has a track record to back them up.
But landowners find themselves in a familiar conundrum in Wyoming: the tense balance between the economic boon of jobs and revenue associated with the oil and gas fields and the impact those industries have on nearby homes and long-term resources.
Cheyenne gets about 70 percent of its water from surface sources like reservoirs and lakes. The remaining 30 percent is pumped up from a number wells that go about 400 to 450 feet beneath the surface.
The oil and gas injection wells, by contrast, go down more than 5,000 feet. That’s where the Sussex lies.
“I cannot imagine a situation where we would try to go that deep for drinking water. It is just not feasible (with today’s technology),” said Bruce Hattig, engineering and water resource manager for Cheyenne.
Upward migration of toxins or leaks can be a concern, but that’s why there are state rules to build wells properly and investigate the geology, Hattig said.
He trusts the regulators to judge where the injection wells are safe to operate.
“Of course we are interested,” he said. “But the key is that it is going through the appropriate review processes.”
Tapping the Denver
Few would feel confident saying that Wyoming’s current oil and gas market is booming after the bust of the last few years. But relative to its history, the Denver Basin is on the rise.
The challenges landowners perched on the edge of the Triple Crown Estate are facing are a side effect of an oil and gas success story welcome to many in a state still reeling from lost jobs and tax money.
The downturn reduced revenue streams at the state and local level to a trickle as production declined and what was pumped out of the ground was sold at a lower price. Many large companies left to focus on profitable assets in Texas or the Midwest. But EOG stuck around, drilling through the bottom of the bust.
The firm began constructing long lateral wells in a new band of rock in the Denver Basin about four years ago, and their strategies have revolutionized the basin despite the downturn.
Compared to five years ago, production from the top five operators in Laramie County had increased by 545 percent in 2016.
In regard to environmental and health concerns, the company has a good track record nationally.
Creighton Welch, a spokesman for the company, said EOG’s 300 Wyoming employees live and work in these areas too, and are also concerned that there are safeguards against pollution.
The company will follow the rules prescribed by the state to protect groundwater, from the permitting phase to ongoing monitoring, he said.
Risks and rules
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hasn’t approved or denied these proposals yet. Tom Kropatsch, deputy supervisor for the commission, maintained that many of the public comments thus far introduce concerns that are covered by the rules.
The OGCC requires baseline water testing, which EOG did on the Brautigam’s place years’ back. It also has strict rules for how the injection wells are constructed, Kropatsch said.
Before regulators allow a company to inject produced water, they analyze the rock formation to judge whether the rock can contain potential toxins and whether it would be economically feasible to be used as a water source at some time in the future, Kropatsch said.
And they know quite a bit about the rock above and below the Sussex, he said. The Pierre Shale is about 3,000 feet thick above and 2,650 feet thick below the aquifer. The produced water won’t get out of there, he said.
The Commission has authority over injection wells, but drinking water is governed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s office in Denver.
If the state decides to allow EOG’s injection wells, it has to send off an aquifer exemption request to the EPA proving that the produced water won’t migrate out and pollute other formations or move up and taint water wells.
The exemptions don’t apply to the entire aquifer. One of EOG’s requests is for the state and federal regulators to expand an existing injection zone because the planned volume of fluid will likely push beyond the borders originally requested.
The federal agency, particularly in the Denver region, has made drinking water one of its top priorities under the Trump Administration, the new head, Doug Benevento, said in a recent interview with the Star-Tribune. The Sussex is designated as a U.S. Drinking Water source, the agency confirmed.
A spokesman said the regional office had received one aquifer exemption request so far from EOG’s proposed wells and sent it back to the company with a request for more data.
“We have requested that the operator re-evaluate the area that may be impacted by injection activities, re-evaluate the location of drinking water wells in the revised area, and update any information that may change in the application due to changes in the supplemental information requested,” said EPA spokesman Richard Mylott, in an email.
Some locals, however, say injection wells are more dangerous than the state makes them out to be. Casings fail, concrete deteriorates and people make mistakes.
“An accident can happen, and they are going to say ‘oops… we contaminated all this drinking water and we don’t know how to fix it now,’” said Brautigam, the landowner.
His issue is that the water locals use for wells is closer to the surface, and these proposed injection wells, some within a mile of the houses, have to drill through that water zone.
For others, there are ongoing concerns with how the state regulates the oil and gas industry, relying on companies like EOG to provide data in regard to potential impacts of their production.
EOG could pump up to 25,000 barrels of produced water into the aquifer per day, and since the area isn’t as historically developed as other basins, there is a lot the state doesn’t know about what’s underground, some say.
“We need some data in order to justify whether that is a good decision,” said Jill Morrison, organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. “What is the water quality of the Sussex across a large area? What can it produce? Is it the future drinking water supply?”
She, and others, also disagree with the state’s confidence about the rock’s ability to contain the salty water and flow back fluid within the Sussex.
Some see the economic benefit of what’s happening in the Denver Basin, said Casey Quinn, a member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, based in Cheyenne. Others are worried and confused by the rules and regulations, what companies can do and what the risks are, Quinn said.
When development was far from houses, people didn’t have to pay attention to regulations, public comment periods or aquifer pollution, he said. Now they do.
Brautigam, the landowner, wants a public hearing on the injection wells, which he believes should be moved farther from the subdivision. He said he knows there are limits to what landowners can do about the growth of the oil field, but he doesn’t like the direction its going.
“It will start to look like Houston here before too long,” he said. “No trees, but pretty oil wells all around.”