AGATE, Colo. (CBS4) – Rick Blotter harvests late-season corn from his backyard organic garden. Nearby, a couple goats are tended by his wife Bev.
Where the couple lives — in the community of Agate in rural Elbert County — is surrounded by pristine ranchland. The Blotters are desperate to protect their retirement home from oil and gas production.
“We’re just looking for good land that may be productive in the future,” says Kelsey Campbell, a spokeswoman for Chesapeake Energy.
Chesapeake — America’s No. 1 driller of natural gas — already has operations in Weld County. But it is among a growing number of oil and gas producers eyeing areas along the Front Range that have not traditionally been drilled, including Elbert County, Arapahoe County and Douglas County.
Rick waves his arm towards a pristine meadow.
“I could imagine them leveling this out and putting a pad here,” he says.
The Blotters aren’t the only ones who are worried. A group of their neighbors joined them to express their fears to CBS4 about a broad range of potential problems. They range from contamination of the water supply to air pollution, industrial noise, truck traffic, diminished property values plus allegations of hard-nosed leasing tactics.
Resident here must rely on the precious ground water for drinking, bathing and cooking, so protecting it is a top priority.
“What I’m worried about is the accidents that occur,” says Larry Ross, a 5th generation landowner in Agate.
He asks what happens when well casings crack underground and answers his own question.
“The chemicals migrate into our water supply,” claims Ross.
Much of the public debate has centered on a process called fracking.
Chesapeake Energy agreed to allow a CBS4 camera crew to visit a fracking operation in Weld County near the town of Roggen.
“It’s a safe, very environmentally friendly process,” explains Sandy Andrew regional Operations Manager for Chesapeake.
Once a well bore is drilled, sand and water and a small amount of chemical additives are injected deep underground. This releases the oil and gas which then rises to the surface. The so-called fracking fluid is a paste-like material.
The chemical additives are no more dangerous than household cleaners you find under your bathroom sink, claims Andrew.
True, they can include corrosion inhibitors and acids. But all fluids — the production water, the oil and gas — travel inside a concrete lined steel pipe, providing double protection against any possibility of leaks.
Fracking typically occurs a mile beneath ground water supplies but it’s up at the surface that most problems occur.
“What you saw is the way it’s supposed to work,” says Mike Freeman of CBS4’s visit in Roggen. Freeman is an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group.
“We know things don’t always go as planned,” he said.
Freeman provided CBS4 with state records detailing a spill above ground at a Chesapeake site in Weld County last summer. Thousands of gallons of water, oil and gas had to be cleaned up, according to the report.
Vandalism was the cause of the spill, according to Chesapeake. An investigation revealed a plug had been removed from a holding tank.
“There are documented spills, there are documented spills as levels many would consider to be significant,” says David Neslin, Director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. His state agency has the duel mission of facilitating oil and gas production throughout the state while at the same time protecting people and their property.
It’s why field crews are stepping up a state program to gather more baseline samples from domestic water wells in areas faced with oil and gas drilling in the future.
The commission has also investigated numerous complaints that wells have been contaminated by fracking (also known as hydraulic fracturing).
“In no instance have we been able to verify that hydraulic fracturing caused such contamination,” says Neslin.
But Donna Dreyer Ross, another neighbor of the Blotters, spends a lot of time combing through public spill reports filed with the Oil and Gas Commission.
She recalled one troublesome situation in another part of the state.
“All this … production water was spilled and they asked the oil company ‘Well, did you have to remediate it?’ And they said ‘Oh no, the spring rains washed it down the creek,’ ” she said.
But Chesapeake tells CBS4 it takes special precautions to prevent and contain any spills. CBS4’s camera crew was shown special tarps laid down under a flatbed truck loaded with containers of fluid. The same site has containment berms.
The operations boss says Chesapeake is open to explain the fracking process to anyone interested.
“So we can allay some of those fears that are driven out of ignorance,” Andrew said.
But the Blotters and their neighbors remain skeptical.
“When they are ready to come in, they’re going to come in regardless of what impact it has to me,” said Rick.
Actual drilling is still at least six months away, says the Chesapeake spokeswoman.
“We wouldn’t stay. We would be in an industrial area trying to raise animals and we don’t want to live that way,” said Bev.
Watch Environmental Specialist Paul Day’s video reports for this story below: