DENVER (CBS4) – It’s a small community in Southern Weld County — more like a gathering of homes huddled against the elements. It bears the years of accumulated dirt blown across the flat fields and the few amenities in the yards of people who have pulled together a living out of long days on local farms.
“It was hard for me to believe that all this time we’ve been sitting on top of oil,” longtime resident Ben Garcia said.
Now Wattenburg is part of a massive expansion of oil production in the lower 48 states, resulting in a change in exports.
The U.S. is about to start exporting more fuel than it imports. It’s the first time in 60 years. The country is now on pace to ship out $88 billion worth of gasoline, jet fuel and diesel. A decade ago fuel wasn’t even among the Top 25 exports.
In Colorado one of the biggest fields spreads out under little Wattenberg, which drew its name from the family that started the building there years ago. But it’s been a long time since much of anything totally new has gone up. A good harvest has meant a deck here, a fence there, maybe a garage.
There’s a modest church with a playground sporting chipping metal swings. The church offers a few programs for locals while off in the fields outsiders are showing up more lately, tending the wells drawing oil and gas and looking for more. Under Wattenberg oil and gas is trapped in rock. It’s part of a field that could bear $150 billion worth of oil.
The industry is fired up about the potential. Houston-based Anadarko Petroleum recently sent out a news release gushing of the potential in the Wattenberg Field. The expansive field, which underlies nearly all of Weld County and beyond, northeast of Denver, has been active for decades. But there have remained perhaps a billion and a half barrels of oil trapped in the rock which may never have been extracted.
“Hydraulic fracturing with horizontal well bores means that we can access the shale that previously was inaccessible,” said Tisha Conoly-Schuller, President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
It isn’t likely to come without some controversy. Multiple fracking continues to draw questions about the safety of groundwater supplies. Fracking has been done for decades, but not multiple fracks off of horizontal legs which can reach out a mile or more.
Drillers inject water and oil with a mixture of other chemicals at about 1 percent to break the oil and gas out of the rock. There have been claims in some areas of the country of groundwater contamination.
In December Colorado put into place what’s considered to be the toughest requirements about fracking in the country. Drilling companies are being required to reveal what chemicals they’re using, providing proprietary information not to the public, but to the state health department.
Like it or not, the practice as it continues is likely to free up huge amounts of oil in two layers beneath Colorado, the Niobrara and the Codell. Both are thousands of feet down.
“These units that are currently being pursued are 1 mile to 1 1/2 mile deeper than any of the shallow aquifers,” said Colorado School of Mines professor of Petroleum Geology Dr. Stephen Sonnenberg.
Similar techniques are also being used on an enormous field beneath North Dakota.
“The U.S. imports that vast majority of our oil. And with the find in North Dakota and with this potential find in Colorado, the Niobrarra, the U.S. could double its domestic oil production,” Conoly-Schuller said.
“It resides within very small pores,” Sonnenberg said. “And the overall interconnectivity of those pores is not real good, so we refer to it as having very low permeability.”
The pores are for the most part unseen to the human eye. The rock is dark and dense. There is so much oil and gas that can be freed, the words “energy independence” are being breathed.
“For natural gas it probably can, for oil production we probably will never be there, but we have reversed the very steep production decline that the U.S. had been seeing over the past 10 years,” Sonnenberg said.
The Wattenberg Field isn’t the only place where the Niobrara holds oil.
“Weld County has about 1/3 of all wells in the state right now, and we see the majority of exploratory activity centered in the Wattenberg Field around Weld, but we know that the Niobrara extends across a good part of Colorado,” Conoly-Schuller said. “So we will see exploratory activity happening in the next year or two in different parts of the state.”
“Over in Northwest Colorado in the Sand Wash Basin, in the Piceanse Basin (under Parachute), we’re seeing wells being drilled,” Sonnenberg said. “And even down in the San Juan Basin we’re seeing that activity take place too.”
In the oil industry it’s known as a “play.”
“So it’s a play that exists across the Rocky Mountain region,” Sonnenberg said.
Colorado has been a traditionally stronger natural gas producer than and oil producing state. The changes could mean Colorado will be an oil state for a long time to come.