Broomfield has been a leader in local regulation of oil and gas drilling, and its approach is being held up as a formula for allowing more drilling in suburban areas. But residents caution that while things may be better in Broomfield, that doesn’t make them good.
Even with 147 required “best management practices” for operators, extensive air monitoring and the city’s own oil and gas inspectors, residents have filed legions of complaints about noise, odors and health problems they suspect are linked to the drilling.
“People should not think they are protected because they have best management practices in place,” said Barbara Binder, a resident who lives near one of six Broomfield oil and gas pads. “They are good to have but they are not the silver bullet.”
In 2019, Senate Bill 181 changed the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission from promoting oil and gas development to protecting public health safety and welfare.
The commission adopted a rule that drilling sites be at least 2,000 feet from homes, but added an offramp allowing companies to drill closer if they add protections that are “substantially equivalent” to the setback.
Kerr-McGee, the state’s largest oil producer, is looking to take that offramp in Firestone and drill 26 wells near 87 homes, with the closest home 763 feet away. Broomfield-style practices are being held up as the key to a go-ahead by state health officials.
The fate of Kerr-McGee’s McGavin site, which the commission is set to rule on Thursday, has become a flash point.
“There is great fear in the communities around here if Kerr-McGee uses this as an offramp there is going to be more oil and gas development like this,” Broomfield City Councilor Laurie Anderson said. “If this is approved, I think you’ll see communities rising up again.
“This is why we fought for 181,” Anderson said.
In an advisory letter to the COGCC, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment had outlined 13 actions which it said should be conditions of approval, adding “if Kerr-McGee is unable to implement CDPHE’s recommendations, then CDPHE recommends that COGCC deny the McGavin location.”
Most of those actions were copies of the best management practices included in an operating agreement between Broomfield and Extraction Oil and Gas, which has subsequently merged into Civitas Resources.
These included the use of quieter, less polluting electric drills, drilling muds free of hydrocarbons and the use of pipelines to transport water off site to cut down on pollution from tanks and trucks.
Initially, Kerr-McGee had rejected most of the CDPHE recommendations, but in the middle of a Feb. 16 hearing on the application, an attorney for the company announced they would use electric drills, less volatile drilling muds and pipelines.
The company was given until March 10 to revise its oil and gas development plan for Firestone.
Yet even with the changes, Broomfield residents caution that they provide no guarantees that things will go smoothly or safely.
Broomfield officials negotiate their best management practices for the change in the oil and gas laws. “This was before 181 and there was a feeling that this was the best they could,” Anderson said. “Their hands were tied.”
Nevertheless, the best management practices are extensive and some, like pollution controls on equipment and pipelines, have subsequently found their way into state regulations.
“We negotiated everything down to the color of the paint we’d use,” said Brian Cain, a Civitas spokesman. The color is called Desert Fox. Civitas’ plan calls for drilling 83 wells at six different sites.
There is a requirement for a closed-loop drilling system to cut pollution and hoods over motors to damper noise during fracking. There is even a requirement not to track mud onto city streets and if the operator does, it must clean it up.
And with all of that when Civitas began drilling the first of 16 horizontal shale wells on the Livingston pad near the Anthem Ranch development, Susan Speece, 76, found herself overcome with irritated eyes and throat, and congestion.
“My home is 1,260 feet from the nearest wellhead and I could see what they were doing out of my back window,” Speece said. “One day I looked out and they were hoisting a man to the top of the rig.”
A retired biology professor and university educator, Speece received summa canisters from the city, which are used to capture air samples, to track what was going on at the Livingston site. Canisters were placed on Speece’s back deck and at a neighbor’s house.
The canister samples, which were analyzed by Colorado State University, revealed trace amounts of 34 different hydrocarbon chemicals — none were above health or safety levels.
Emissions vary from day to day
They did, however, vary widely from good days to bad days, Speece found. Toluene measured 0.053 parts per billion on a good day and 24 times higher on a bad one. Toluene, at higher concentrations, can cause eye and nose irritation and tiredness, according to the National Institute of Occupational Health.
Levels of benzene — also an irritant and with chronic exposure a carcinogen — were 0.071 ppb on a good day and more than four times as high on a bad one.
Speece was not alone in her complaints. Between November 2019 and July of 2020, 282 area residents reported 461 “health concerns” to the city including difficulty sleeping, headaches and nosebleeds. Half the nosebleeds were in children and adolescents.
By late spring of 2020, Civitas had fracked the wells, which sent vibrations through Speece’s house, and cloaked them within a large berm and began production. “Things have settled down though we still get some burning eyes,” she said.
The Livingston pad is surrounded by a high berm. The compressors use electricity not diesel, and the the oil, natural gas and wastewater are piped to a facility in Weld County 8 miles away. There are no tanks on the site.
The berms were built high enough to reduce any noise and light pollution, Cain said. A real-time air monitor is perched atop the berm.
While there are only trace readings on Speece’s back deck, there have been 11 benzene spikes, in October and December, near Civitas’ Northwest drill pads that exceeded the federal one-hour health standard of 9 ppb.
At 4 a.m. on Dec. 4, the levels reached 223 ppb.
When pressed by residents whether under such circumstances CDPHE could shut down the operation, the agency said in a formal response that while its air pollution control division does have the authority to issue a cease-and-desist order “when there is clear, present and immediate danger to public health or welfare … this is a very high bar.”
“The levels of benzene measured in Broomfield are not an immediate danger and do not mean that people will experience health impacts,” the department said.
Kathy Steerman, Civitas’ manager for air compliance and engineering, said that while the summa canisters represent an accurate “fingerprint” of the air emissions it is difficult to extrapolate any ongoing exposure from a brief spike.
Fumes so bad people can’t go outdoors
“The most important thing is that they are of short duration,” Steerman said. “The key is we don’t have atmospheric emissions” that linger in the air and create constant pollution.
Barbara Binder, who lives 1,600 feet from the Northwest B pad, south of Northwest Parkway at about North Pecos Street, is not reassured. “We live next to this and have this ongoing anxiety and fear because we don’t trust the operator,” she said. “I don’t know if the place is going to blow up or what my health will be in five years.”
Some days the fumes are so bad that Bender says she is driven indoors. “Kudos to the city for doing what they have, but for someone living next to a site, it isn’t enough.”
The area where she lives is unincorporated Adams County. “It has an agricultural vibe,” Binder said. “Homes are on 2¼ acres and people have goats and chickens and horses. It is a little rural enclave. The homes have been here for 30 years.”
It is an enclave now home to three large drilling pads — Northwest A, Northwest B and the Interchange A and B pads. The pads will hold a total of 47 wells.
“A few times during drilling we had noise issues and when they started fracking the noise was hellacious,” Binder said. “I couldn’t sleep even with the windows closed.”
Civitas put in extra sound walls and a wall of hay bales. “It really didn’t help us much,” Binder said. “We were told fracking is noisy, oil and gas operations are noisy.”
Noise was a particularly pesky problem in 2019 when the city received 299 noise complaints about oil and gas operations near homes in the first 11 months of the year and another 198 complaints in December.
Deborah Dryjanski filed a complaint about noise from the Livingston pad, near the intersection of Sheridan Parkway and Lowell Boulevards, after walking her dog at 8:45 p.m. on Dec. 13. “The sound was like a freight train that never ended,” she wrote.
The following morning Becky McLeod took her dog for a walk at 5:30 a.m. and she said the noise from the pad “sounded like I was standing on a runway at DIA.”
The complaints led to the city passing an energy sound ordinance aimed at reducing noise from industrial uses located outside industrial zones between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. The ordinance led to a city lawsuit against Civitas, which was upheld in court, and a countersuit by the driller.
“Noise is a hard thing to chase,” Cain said. “You build a supermarket or homes there is going to be noise. … We are always looking for ways to reduce noise.”
On Jan. 14, residents around the Northwest pad saw a flame shoot skyward and a column of black smoke.
It was caused when a field crew went to restart operations after a valve malfunction led to an automatic shutdown, Civitas explained on the city website. The crew was not aware there was residual fluid in a 30-foot segment of pipe, so that when it started up it led to a flash and the smoke.
“It’s great that the automatic shutdown worked,” Binder said. “It’s not good that the operator didn’t understand there was product in the line before they started back up.”
Such an incident reinforces the worries of some residents sparked by incidents such as the explosion and fire at Civitas’ Stromberger 22-E pad near Windsor on Dec. 22, 2017, which sent a worker to the hospital. The fire raged for two hours and was fought by firefighters from three area fire departments.
“If a fire like that happened here, as close as they are to us, it could be catastrophic,” Binder said.
“Our Broomfield wells are fully automated and designed to shut in when out-of-ordinary operating conditions are detected,” Cain said. “We have also drilled and worked extensively with North Metro Fire Department on our emergency response plan filed with the city. We have had no major process safety incidents during our operations in Broomfield.”
City officials and Civitas managers agree that when problems have arisen there have been collaborative efforts to solve them. “You don’t just sign an operating agreement and that’s that,” Cain said. “This has been an ongoing process.”
Anderson said that while improvements do get made Broomfield residents shouldn’t be the guinea pigs in figuring them out.
Still, Civitas operations have employed a host of techniques and technologies including acoustical sound blankets, quiet-fracking technology, higher performing and less polluting engines and secondary sound walls — none of which are included in the Kerr-McGee’s Firestone plan.
“Extraction is using the best technology,” Anderson said, “but it just proves they shouldn’t be drilling next to homes.”