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Feature Story
Photo of a drilling rig
How Halliburton Technology is Wrecking the Rockies
by Michelle Nijhuis

Out on the western edge of Colorado, where the Rocky Mountains flatten into desert mesas and dusty canyons, there is a small town called Silt. Like the powdery soil beneath it, Silt seems a humble place, with a couple of gas stations, a couple of churches, and a town park offering shade from the persistent summer sun.

Laura Kunau moved here from Illinois about a dozen years ago to join her boyfriend, Larry Amos, whom she would marry a few years later. The couple ran a successful outfitting business in the nearby mountains, leading clients in search of bull elk or prime fly-fishing streams. In the winter they took to the road, promoting their business at hunting banquets and trade shows.

But on the borders of their idyllic life, the Rocky Mountain energy boom was gaining momentum. The nation was thirsting for natural gas, and the Rockies had plenty to offer: Beneath the forests and deserts and ranchlands, beneath the gorgeous open country, lay some of the nation's largest remaining reserves of fossil fuels. With a sympathetic administration in Washington, and state and local governments unwilling or unable to stand in the way, the natural-gas industry tore into the new millennium, perforating landscapes from Montana to New Mexico.

The Powder River Basin of Wyoming is now studded with nearly 25,000 natural-gas wells, a number that is expected to more than double in the next 20 years. The San Juan Basin of southwestern Colorado is home to another 25,000 wells, with 15,000 more projected in the next two decades. The true costs of the boom -- to land, to water, and to human health -- remain largely unassessed and sometimes willfully obscured. And Laura Amos wonders if she is one of its uncounted casualties.

Photo of a wellThe town of Silt, in Garfield County, may appear unremarkable, but it sits atop a geologic wonder. The Piceance (pronounced "pee-awnce") Basin, the wide bowl of desert cradling Silt and the surrounding small towns, contains as much as 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to supply the entire United States, at current consumption levels, for well over four years.

Most Piceance gas is locked inside "tight sands," rock so fine-grained as to be almost impermeable. Though industry insiders have known about the Piceance for decades, its tight-sands gas has been too difficult -- in other words, too expensive -- to pull out of the ground. But in the late 1990s, when the price of natural gas shot upward, the impossible became possible.

The extraction of Piceance gas demands an awkwardly named technique known as hydraulic fracturing (sometimes called "frac'ing" and pronounced "fracking"). Fracturing, developed by Halliburton in the 1950s, uses a high-pressure blast of fluids to open cracks in gas- or oil-bearing rock formations, allowing trapped fuels to flow out of the underground rock and to the surface.

Most companies keep their particular "recipes" for hydraulic fracturing fluids under wraps, but many fluids are known to contain toxic chemicals intended to increase the efficiency of the process. Some, for example, include the carcinogen benzene and the powerful neurotoxins toluene and xylene. Studies have shown that residues of these and other substances can remain underground after fracturing is completed.

In the early decades of the technology, perhaps one in every 100 wells was frac'd. But as the nation's fossil energy reserves shrank, fracturing became a common tool in both oil and gas operations. The process is now used in some 90 percent of the country's tight-sands and coal-bed methane gas wells, which can require five or more separate "frac jobs" to keep the gas coming.

So thanks to high gas prices and the magic of frac'ing, Rocky Mountain gas fields are among the most lucrative in the country -- and nowhere in Colorado are they growing more rapidly than in the Piceance Basin. There are now more than 3,000 wells in Garfield County alone, and various industry estimates predict another 10,000 wells during the next decade.

When you picture these wells, picture them not only in vast public forests and remote redrock deserts but also on ranches and in rural neighborhoods, in pastures and near private homes. Because of a quirk in federal law dating back to the early 1900s, many landowners in the Rockies cannot keep gas wells off their own property. While residents control the surface of their land, the state or federal government often manages the riches in the earth below, and the rights to develop them can be leased to private companies. Though surface owners can negotiate conditions and restrictions with industry representatives, they frequently feel outwitted. "It's like playing a complicated board game without being told the rules," says former Silt resident Peggy Utesch, who watched gas wells surround her four-acre property until she finally moved away in frustration, blaming industrial pollution for her frequent headaches and skin rashes. "The industry succeeds in running over people who don't know the rules."

Once-peaceful ranches and neighborhoods have become industrial sites, invaded by drill rigs, concrete well pads, and networks of busy access roads. Gas development has fragmented wildlife habitat and inundated pastures with groundwater. It has dumped pollutants into the air, shrouding vistas in haze and increasing the risk of lung damage and other health problems for nearby residents. The gas boom has also brought hydraulic fracturing uncomfortably close to the region's supplies of clean drinking water.

"Fracturing is causing these mini seismic events underground," explains Lisa Sumi, who has investigated the issue for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), a grassroots nonprofit group based in Durango, Colorado. The effects of these small earthquakes, she says, remain largely unknown. "We just don't have enough data. This is a huge experiment."

The Vanishing Bee
Paradise Drowned
In Verse

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Michelle Nijhuis is a freelance writer in western Colorado and the winner of the 2006 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism.

Photos: Lynn Johnson

Map: Mike Reagan

OnEarth. Summer 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council