(EnviroNews Utah) — Duchesne, Utah — [Editor’s Note: This piece formerly had a sub-header. The title was: How Would You Feel about an Oil Drill Rig in Your Backyard? Helpless Residents of Utah’s Duchesne County Are about to Find out Just How It Feels] — The transcript is as follows:
One of the questions we’ve been evaluating here at EnviroNews as of late is: With American oil and gas exploration exploding like never before, and with that boom being fueled by fracking and other aggressive new technologies, just how far is the oil and gas industry willing to go in order to drill a well in your backyard? And furthermore, in the humble opinion of big oil and gas just what distance is too close for a well to be to your house before it’s considered dangerous?
Well, it’s questions like those that were hotly contested at a Planning Commission meeting in Duchesne County, Utah, on Monday, May 13th at 1:30 PM. Attendees were warned with a big sign on their way in the door that any rabble rousers would be escorted out by security.
Despite obvious and overwhelming opposition from the crowd, the Duchesne County Planning Commission signed off in unanimous 3–0 fashion to approve a proposed reduction of the current oil-well setback protection, diminishing it from 660 feet to a
meager 300 feet.
Duchesne County’s Altamont, Bluebell, and Cedar Rim oilfields are the most potent fields in Utah, and have produced far more petroleum that any other patches in the state. The Altamont alone has produced over 200,000,000 lifetime-barrels, and boasting a legendary 60,000,000 stock tank barrels per section, engineers have been exploring for decades how to maximize the area’s output.
In light of the aggressive deployment of fracking technologies that has come about as a result of the frack-for-all hall-pass handed out by former Vice President and Halliburton chief Dick Cheney, via his own 2005 Cheney Energy Bill, there seems to be no end in sight to oil and gas extraction in the Uintah Basin.
The massively productive Altamont Field has the density or spacing allotment for four wells per 640-acre section, and the county previously had in place a zoning regulation that stipulated wells to be no closer than 660 feet from a residential dwelling. But one oilfield expert whom we spoke with off the record told us it was “insane to have a well set up even 660 feet from a residential dwelling, as far as the safety issue is concerned, let alone 300.″
If you want to take a look at just what can go wrong, you only have to go back in time to last January when a drill-rig, under the control of Frontier Drilling, caught fire in Roosevelt on a Devon Energy well-site, which led to the evacuation of 12 families living within a half-mile radius, due to fears of hydrogen sulfide gas and other harmful airborne pollutants. Just for you math whizzes, that’s 2,640 feet, to be exact — nearly nine times the newly approved “safety” distance, and about quadruple the old and abolished 660-foot barrier.
At this time further investigation is required as to exactly how this proposed change was brewed, schemed, or came about in general.
The “setback” is what allows local residents to protect themselves against a well being drilled on their patio, or next to the backyard barbecue or trampoline. Did the Commission just get together one fine day, all by themselves, and say to each other, “Hey, it’d be a great idea to get oil wells closer to the homes of the people that elected us. Just how do we go about doing that”? Or was the Commission influenced by something to make this move?
What is not clear to us at this time is how or why the Commission is making this move, but it certainly isn’t for the safety and sanctuary of the common man. It is suspected and surmised by community members that one or more undisclosed oil company representatives have lobbied or influenced the Commission for the weakening of the current zoning regulation — a regulation that many with whom we have spoken say is not a safe setback protection in the first place.
Operators in the Altamont, Bluebell and Cedar Rim are not plentiful, and production is dominated by a handful of companies who are all set to benefit from newly increased latitude in their operational and exploratory endeavors, all at the expense to the common man’s safety and sanctuary. Companies such as Bill Barrett Corporation, Devon Energy, Quinex and EP Production (formerly El Paso Production Company) are all positioned to reap strategic drilling benefits by the new setback, while gaining an even more enabling hall-pass to trample the backyard privacy of hardworking home and landowners.
The truth of the matter is, in most situations the drilling density in a section can be maintained while strategically positioning all of the wells allowed for that section tightly together on a single pad and away from dwellings. Utilizing the modern-day advent of lateral and horizontal drilling, the wells are subsequently drilled straight downward, and then horizontally outward into prime areas of interest contained within the section. Although more expensive, the deployment of horizontal drilling technologies allows the driller to go straight down until parallel to the zone of interest, and then turn the drill bit completely perpendicular, drilling out for a mile or more horizontally, and directly through the most productive pay zones. This practice has been implemented in the state of Colorado and beyond to maintain the safety and serenity of the local residential community.
In actuality, it can be stated that the only reason to ever position a well within 300 feet of a dwelling is that drillers want to take an old, cheap and haphazard road to profit, versus a more high-tech method of horizontal exploration techniques that, though requiring more technology and diligence, oddly enough, lead ultimately, to much higher revenues for the oil operator.
The creepy, Freddy Krueger-like, and relentless auditory expressions and sounds from a pump jack alone, that roll on day and night, and seemingly into eternity are enough to annoy and infuriate many a resident and Samaritan alike in the beautiful Uintah Basin, and these same creepy movie-like sound effects are easily audible from even the 660-foot barrier currently in place.
When discussing oil-well safety, it is imperative to recognize that pollution concentrates near its sources. Oil wells are, without a doubt, point-source emitters and frequently vent gas from their tank batteries, in addition to emitting various other pollutants into the groundwater from spills, carcinogenic well treatment chemicals and more.
That being said, even the marginal yet noticeable levels of increase in particulate and groundwater pollution experienced continually at 660 feet versus 300 feet from a well should be a source of concern to pregnant mothers and those with small children. Pollution, although migratory, again concentrates near its sources, and components of gas and other chemicals emitted from oil wells are scientifically known to cause cancer and birth defects.
One word that your common man, and every review board in nearly every regulatory and environmental sector has been bombarded with over the head time and again with, is the word “SAFELY” That’s what they ALWAYS say! — “they” meaning big energy pumpers. You know, like they can drill “safely” offshore (until the BP spill happened). And like they can safely build nuclear reactors on the ocean (until the full-blown triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi happened). And that they can safely tank oil around the oceans (until the Exxon Valdez spill happened). And like how they can pump deadly bitumen crude from tar sands around the country safely (until Mayflower, Arkansas), and so forth and so on. This documentary could go on for days citing examples of how energy developers said they could do it “safely,” until the next loss of life or human health or environmental calamity is upon us.
So the question remains: Is ANY energy exploration enterprise to be trusted when their accountability, loyalty, and very duty go, first and foremost, to their shareholders for the bottom line? When stock value is the first priority and prime directive, and safety, workers rights and environmental responsibility are tertiary at best? When oil and energy companies have been demonstrated to choose profit over people time and again, can they really be trusted when they use their very favorite little word “safely”?
All of this is enough to make a person wonder just where the EPA and other federal regulatory bodies stand on the issue concerning the proximity of drilling and well-site operations to human dwellings. And what kind of guidelines, if any, are being observed or enforced? Should it really just be up to the often industry-entrenched local municipalities in mining communities to determine what is truly a scientifically “safe” distance for oil wells to be from our abodes?
The Devon Energy/Frontier Drilling oil-rig fire in Roosevelt, Utah, was not an isolated or unique incident, and many drilling and oil-well fires and explosions have been observed in recent years. This, coupled with the known hazardous, cancer-causing and mutagenic emissions that emanate from nearly every oil well to varying degrees, should raise major concern, especially for those wanting to conceive, those who are pregnant and those with young children.
Part of the problem, say some residents, is the fact that the Duchesne County Planning Commission is well known for scheduling public comment meetings at 1:30 in the afternoon, when the majority of concerned, working-class residents are unable to attend — a maneuver that they call an intentional “trick” that seeks to benefit the extraction agenda of the oil and gas industry, while excluding citizens from the process, stifling legitimate discourse and sweeping the heartfelt concerns of the little guy under the rug. If the Commission is truly concerned with the health and well-being of its constituents and sincerely wants to encourage public input, comment and participation, then why hold these meetings at a time when few can attend?
So just where is the line? Just what is too close? It should be quite obvious to nearly anyone with experience on the matter that an oil-rig explosion is going to cause a grave risk to anything within 300 feet of it, and we know from history that accidents do happen.
On a final note, it should be stated that there really are no barriers protecting children from the well-sites themselves, and anyone could quite easily pedal their bike up to a pump jack and attempt to gain a free Ferris wheel ride if they really wanted to. Most well-sites in the basin are largely open — unenclosed and unprotected — and if kids these days are anything like the rascally kids of yesteryears, one can only imagine what mischief could be offered by an up-and-down-moving object out in the local pasture. We were wondering if the oil companies would mind if residents hung their laundry from the pump jacks? Or perhaps kicking field goals through it would be fun? Would they mind if neighborhood families mounted a basketball hoop on it? After all, with the new “setback” protection in place, wells will be able to be so close to home, they’ll feel just like one of the family, right?