Oil & Gas News

Denver Oil and Gas Project Raises Environmental and Public Health Concerns

Denver, Civitas, Oil

A planned oil and gas development endeavor involving 166 wells on the outskirts of Denver is under scrutiny for potentially undermining a decades-long, multi-million-dollar effort to manage hazardous chemicals at one of America’s most notorious polluted locations. This project, proposed in the vicinity of the Lowry Landfill Superfund site, has ignited concerns among federal and state officials. They worry that drilling activities, especially those occurring beneath and adjacent to the Superfund site, could create minute fractures in the bedrock. These fractures may provide a pathway for the millions of gallons of toxic waste, currently held in 78 unlined pits, to infiltrate an essential aquifer system. This aquifer serves as a crucial water source for millions of Coloradans, emphasizing the high stakes of the proposed development.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), responsible for a complex, four-decade-long project to safeguard the health of the population surrounding the site, has voiced its apprehensions. The agency’s concerns revolve around the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a method that has propelled Colorado into the position of the nation’s fourth-largest oil producer over the last ten years. This technique, which involves the injection of vast quantities of water, sand, and chemicals to fracture shale formations deep underground and extract oil and gas, has come under scrutiny for its environmental impact. Civitas, the company behind the proposed drilling operation and one of Colorado’s leading oil producers, has been specifically warned by the EPA about the potential for fracking to compromise the bedrock layer containing hazardous substances, leading to unintentional releases of these materials.

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In response to the EPA’s expressed concerns, Civitas pledged in a letter not to drill directly beneath the Superfund site. The company characterized this decision as a precautionary measure, aimed at protecting the existing Superfund remedy, rather than an admission of inherent risks associated with oil and natural gas development. This exchange highlights the tension between expanding energy operations and maintaining environmental safeguards in sensitive areas.

Denver, Civitas, Oil

This map of Civitas’ Lowry Ranch Comprehensive Area Plan was shared by Aurora’s Oil and Gas Division on Aug. 12, 2022. The heavy green line shows neighborhoods within Aurora city limits. The heavy red line is the Lowry Ranch CAP. The thin red lines, running east-west, are the proposed subsurface wellbore paths. Proposed wells begin at a single surface location, drill down 7,000 feet, then turn parallel to the ground surface (i.e., “horizontal”) and drill 2 or 3 miles east or west. (Aurora Oil and Gas Division)

Despite Civitas’ assurances and subsequent adjustments to its drilling proposal following requests from state regulators, the project continues to raise alarm. One area of particular concern is the proposed development’s proximity to the Aurora Reservoir. This body of water, which is a vital source of drinking water for approximately 390,000 people and a popular recreational spot, lies close to the 50-square-mile oil and gas project area. The proximity of proposed well pads, some within two miles of the Superfund site and potentially even closer to the reservoir due to horizontal drilling techniques, has exacerbated fears about the risk of contamination and induced seismic activity.

Mineral Rights, Sell Mineral RightsThese fears are not unfounded. There is ongoing uncertainty among experts regarding whether industrial operations like fracking could trigger seismic events. This concern is amplified by the presence of faults mapped near both the Superfund site and the Aurora Reservoir’s dam. The potential for such activity to disturb sensitive containment efforts at the Superfund site or impact the structural integrity of the reservoir’s dam has brought the issue of fracking-induced seismicity to the forefront of public discourse.

The broader implications of the Civitas’ Lowry Ranch oil and gas plan extend beyond environmental concerns. The project has ignited a debate about the adequacy of current regulations to protect public health and safety in the face of expanding industrial activities. Residents and conservation groups have called for stricter controls on where fracking can occur and comprehensive studies to assess its impact. This push for heightened regulatory scrutiny reflects growing apprehension about the proximity of large-scale energy projects to suburban areas, which exposes residents to air pollution, spills, and other hazards.

The controversy surrounding the Lowry Ranch project has prompted local governmental bodies to take action. The Arapahoe County Board of County Commissioners, for instance, has revised its oil and gas rules to increase setbacks and require more stringent environmental testing. These measures represent a response to the unique challenges posed by drilling near populated areas and sensitive sites, underscoring the need for a balanced approach that safeguards both economic interests and public welfare.

Furthermore, the debate over the project has highlighted the complex interplay between different levels of government, regulatory bodies, and the private sector in managing environmental risks associated with oil and gas development. The Colorado State Land Board, for example, while not having direct regulatory authority over the Civitas project, plays a role in the broader landscape of land and mineral rights management that underpins such developments.

In conclusion, the Civitas’ proposal to drill near the Lowry Landfill Superfund site encapsulates the broader challenges faced by communities across the United States. As energy companies venture closer to urban areas and environmentally sensitive sites, the need for vigilant oversight and robust regulatory frameworks becomes increasingly apparent. Balancing the economic benefits of oil and gas production with the imperative to protect public health and the environment requires careful consideration of the potential risks and a commitment to preventive measures. The unfolding situation in suburban Denver serves as a poignant reminder of the complexities inherent in pursuing energy development in the modern era, where the imperatives of environmental stewardship and community safety are paramount.

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