Amanda Harper was driving home from a class in Boulder on Monday evening when she saw a huge plume of white smoke emanating from Crestone Peak Resources’ Regnier Farms fracking site near her home on Oxford Road and East County Line Road, about a half-mile east of the Boulder County line.
“It was very frightening,” she said. “I could see the plume was going south, right over my house, so I knew whatever toxic chemicals were in the air pollution was going right over my house. I was also concerned about any kind of an explosion. Then I realized that I had not been contacted and told that there was a fire and a risk of an industrial explosion right next to my house.”
Harper went on to say when she called the fire department, they said they were aware of and working on the blaze, but didn’t know yet what caused it or what was burning.
In conjunction with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s rulemaking process following the passage of Senate Bill 181, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will host a public comment session on Monday so people like Harper can express their concerns and suggest new regulations. Held in McKee Hall at 200 Peridot Ave. in Loveland, the public comment session will be open from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.
During the following three days, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will hold rulemaking hearings in which discuss strengthening reporting and permitting requirements as well as measures concerning additional emission reduction requirements and available emissions control technology.
The rulemaking hearings will be from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the Sabin-Cleere Room at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 4300 Cherry Creek South Drive in Denver.
While Crestone Peak Resources, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration are still investigating exactly what happened to cause the well fire at the Regnier Farms well pad, the initial incident report compiled by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s field inspection supervisor Mike Leonard stated “there appears to be a short duration of pressurized natural gas that escaped from the wellbore and ignited by an unknown source.”
During his investigation, Leonard found that the wellbore gas leak was quickly stopped when crew members shut blow out preventers, which worked as designed stopping the flow of gas. Before that, the “the short intense fire from the wellbore gas ignited other combustible items such as rubber coating on hydraulic hoses, wiring, painted surfaces, and ancillary equipment.”
Crestone Peak Resources reported seven contracted workers were injured in the fire. None of the injuries were life-threatening.
Megan Castle, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said it’s still unclear if a permit violation was to blame for the fire. Anti-fracking advocates said that’s exactly the problem.
“The biggest piece of this whole thing is the lack of a continuous emission monitoring system,” said Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate with environmental nonprofit Earthworks. “It’s important the state not rely on estimated and potential emissions provided by the industry.”
Three weeks before the fire, Pete Dronkers, a certified thermographer with Earthworks, whose infrared camera can create thermal images of invisible emissions, set his camera just off of the Regnier Farms well pad in response to several complaints submitted by surrounding landowners.
Through his camera, which is calibrated to see methane and violate organic compounds, he could see plumes of emissions carrying offsite into the surrounding community.
While the camera cannot calculate exactly how much methane or how many volatile organic compounds were being emitted, Eddy said the plume of pollution Dronkers saw was relatively normal for an oil and gas operation during the fracking phase.
“There was nothing that was out of the ordinary while we monitored this site,” she said. “No more harm was being caused to the surrounding community than is typical and generally permitted by state rules.”
Should the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission require extractors to employ emissions control technology, allow for a greater rate of well site inspections and regularly report emissions, anti-fracking advocates say the state would be able to better regulate the industry, prevent incidents like the fire at the Regnier Farms and ensure public and health safety, as well as provide some peace of mind for those like Amanda Harper who live near active fracking sites.
“One of the things we’re definitely looking for is a zero-emissions standard that the industry can achieve using state-of-the-art technology,” said Anne Lee Foster, a spokeswoman with anti-fracking group Colorado Rising. “It’s imperative, considering our air quality is already an F according to American Lung Association , that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conduct baseline assessment showing what harm is already being done by fossil fuels and what would be an acceptable level of risk for the state moving forward. Without a definitive metric, it won’t be possible to effectively protect public health and safety.”
WildEarth Guardians on Thursday made a similar argument in the U.S. District Court of Colorado, where it is suing seven oil and gas companies for violating the Clean Air Act at 15 fracking sites in Weld County and hoping to set a precedent for more strict permitting rules.
By taking advantage of the 90-day window in which the state allows extractors to operate before applying for a permit, Randall Weiner, the attorney representing Wild Earth Guardians, said the companies were able to avoid regulation as well as inspection with a simple promise they would not emit above certain levels.
WildEarth Guardians argued that because self-regulated limits put in place by the extraction companies were not enforceable at the federal level, all seven companies were required to obtain a permit before construction and therefore violated the Clean Air Act for more than two years while they awaited a permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The companies have filed a motion to dismiss, on which Judge R. Brooke Jackson is expected to rule in the coming weeks.