The Garfield County, Colo., report, released in November, was among the first to broadly analyze the ability of contaminants to migrate underground in drilling areas and to find that such contamination was in fact occurring. Using sophisticated scientific techniques, the three-year study examined methane samples from 292 locations and found that methane, as well as wastewater from drilling, was making its way into drinking water not as a result of a single accident but on a broader basis.
As the number of gas wells in the area increased from 200 to 1,300 in this decade, the methane levels in nearby water wells increased too. The study found that natural faults and fractures exist in underground formations in Colorado, and that it may be possible for contaminants to travel through them.
The researchers did not conclude that gas and fluids were migrating directly from the deep pockets of gas the industry was extracting. In fact, they said it was more likely that the gas originated from a weakness somewhere along the well’s structure. But the discovery of so much natural fracturing, combined with fractures made by the drilling process, raises questions about how all those cracks interact with the well bore and whether they could be exacerbating the groundwater contamination, said Geoffrey Thyne, a senior research scientist at the University of Wyoming’s Enhanced Oil Recovery Institute who wrote the report’s summary and conclusion.
The report has been met with cautious silence by the industry and by its regulators.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state’s regulatory body, said it hasn’t thoroughly analyzed the data and couldn’t comment.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Encana, the Canadian energy company that drills in the study area, wouldn’t comment either. Both referred questions to Anthony Gorody, a Houston-based geochemist who specializes in oil and gas issues and frequently is employed by the energy industry.
Gorody dismissed the report’s conclusions as “junk science.” He criticized its methodology and said most of the methane in the study area came from decaying matter near the surface, not from the deep gas produced by the energy industry.
“This is so out of whack. There are a handful of wells that have problems. These are rare events,” said Gorody, president of Universal Geosciences Consulting. “They are like plane crashes – the extent tends to be fairly limited. I do not see any pervasive impact.”
When landmen from Cabot Oil & Gas came knocking on doors along the rutted dirt grade of Carter Road in Dimock last year they sold a promise many residents were eager to hear: sign a gas lease and the land might finally pay for itself.
Many of Dimock’s 1,300 residents had fallen on hard times. Approximately one in seven were out of work, and more than a few homes were perched on the precipice of foreclosure.
Cabot offered $25 an acre for the right to drill for five years, plus royalties when the gas started flowing.
“It seemed like God’s provenance,” said Pat Farnelli, whose husband, a farmer, had taken a job as a night chef at a diner on the Interstate to pay one more month’s mortgage. The day Cabot’s man showed up – with a wide-brim hat and a Houston drawl – the Farnellis mistook him for a debt collector. “We really were having a rough time right then – that day. We thought it was salvation. Any ray of hope here is a big deal.”
That was more than a year ago, and since then Cabot – which earned close to a billion dollars in revenue last year – has drilled 20 wells and is producing $58 million worth of gas there annually. In its annual report Cabot bullishly called the Dimock field a once-in-a-lifetime “game changing event” for the company and announced it would drill 63 more wells there next year.
The wealth has begun trickling down to the residents of Dimock. A few will earn more than a half-million dollars this year, and bimonthly checks for $6,000 are not uncommon. Cabot and its contractors also support the local economy by hiring local labor and patronizing hotels and restaurants in nearby towns.