A Colorado oil company has run into unexpected, vehement opposition to its plan to convert a disused oil well in Sioux County for disposal of leftover saltwater from fracking operations in northern Colorado and eastern Wyoming.
Terex Energy applied with the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in November to open a commercial facility to inject wastewater from oil and gas production more than a mile underground for disposal. It has the potential to be the largest such operation in the state, with as many as 80 trucks hauling 10,000 barrels of the water to the site daily, according to public documents.
The water would be filtered onsite to remove chemicals left over from the drilling process before being pumped underground.
Brian Palm, whose ranch is about two miles from the site, is worried about the risk of a leak contaminating local aquifers or a ground spill affecting Spotted Tail Creek, which empties into the North Platte River.
“I don’t see how it benefits our county in any way," Palm said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "There is too much risk outweighing the reward for our county."
Opponents have mobilized to the point that the Sioux County Board of Commissioners had to move to a larger meeting room earlier this month to accommodate the 50 or so who showed up.
Commissioner Hal Downer said he’s not seen residents this riled up over a project in the four years he has been on the board.
Opponents raised concerns about the specter of contamination of water for drinking, irrigation and livestock, as well as increased truck traffic near schools.
But Terex geologist Marty Gottlob said the outrage is being fanned by people from outside the area and by a lack of understanding about the project.
“Nebraska produces a lot of oil and gas and the local farmers have leased their land and minerals to the oil and gas companies in hopes of having them develop it," he said. "But then they forget that as part of the oil and gas process, water is produced and that water has to be disposed of. It’s not just cashing checks from the oil companies.
"It goes down into deep sandstone layers that are already very, very salty and have a high content of salt," Gottlob said. "We’re pumping cleaner water into it than exists already.”
Often called produced water by industry insiders who feel there are too many negative connotations with the term wastewater, the liquid is a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing process spewed out of the ground after the fracking, often along with oil. Water pumped underground to create enough pressure to free up oil and gas often releases pockets of salty water trapped underground naturally.
The wastewater is separated from the oil and either reused or piped back underground for disposal.
Nebraska already has 115 working disposal sites and 15 that are no longer used, said Bill Sydow, director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. And, he said, any of the chemicals used in fracking water can be found in common household products.
Terex will be required to report monthly injection volumes and pressures to the commission, which will inspect the well at least annually.
The Terex project would pump saltwater through a cement-and-steel-encased well into one of two geological layers: the Sundance Sand, which is 5,866 feet to 5,922 feet down, and the Spearfish Sand, which is 6,100 feet to 6,184 feet down.
The vertical distance between the lowest fresh-water zone and the uppermost disposal layer would be 5,316 feet and includes a thick layer of impermeable shale, according to the application.
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University of Nebraska-Lincoln hydrogeologist Steve Sibray, who is based in Scottsbluff, said the wildcat well in Sioux County is a good candidate for this type of project.
“I don’t have any concerns about it," he said. "I think Oil and Gas Commission and the (Nebraska) Department of Environmental Quality are very well-qualified to regulate this.
“I don’t lose sleep over it.”
Two layers of metal casing, each encased in turn by cement, surround the tubing of the well down to 600 feet and a single layer extends down to 7,900 feet. All the layers extend well below the depth of the aquifer in the area. Sibray said a test well drilled nearby showed water depth at 241 feet with about 40 feet of thickness. The water there is known as the Arikaree Formation, part of the High Plains Aquifer, generally known as part of the Ogallala Aquifer.
Natural forces will ensure that water pumped into the ground will stay underground, Sibray said.
“This stuff has to be disposed of,” he said. “People truck this stuff across state lines all the time and I have no doubt Nebraska water has ended up in disposal wells in Kansas and Colorado.”
While disposal wells have been associated with increased earthquakes in some states, Sibray said he knows of no faults in the area, which means such activity would be unlikely in the Nebraska Panhandle.
All that has failed to reassure people like Jane Grove, who owns a ranch with her husband, Rick, just across the highway from the well.
“I feel that the risk for above-ground spills or leaks or accidental spills is very high,” she said.
Grove said she doesn’t oppose the oil industry. In fact, she said, there is an oil well on her property that her parents leased in the 1980s.
“There is always human error and there is always equipment malfunction,” she said. “If there is a spill or a malfunction in the casing, going through the aquifer, then it is awful hard to clean up.”
Sioux County has two oil-producing wells that were drilled in the 1980s, and a handful of exploratory wells have been approved within the past couple of years. Gottlob said those wells all produce wastewater, which, in some cases, is trucked out of the state.
The North Platte Natural Resources District, which has no jurisdictional authority over the project, plans to put in a monitoring well near the disposal site to watch for any problems, said general manager John Berge.
“We have obviously some very interested and concerned constituents here in our district,” he said. “We understand there are a number of these across the state and the track record is quite good with them. The only reason we’re pursuing this is this is the first of its kind ... in our district.”
The monitoring well will provide real-time information to the commission.
State Sens. John Stinner of Gering and Ken Schilz of Ogallala have introduced a bill (LB512) that would increase the Oil and Gas Commission’s authority to monitor and regulate wastewater from out of state. The bill includes a 20-cent-per-barrel tax on the water to be used for road maintenance and water monitoring.
Terex officials have said they believe the proposal would violate constitutional protections of interstate commerce.