Converse County oil boom draws concerns from residents

Dec 7, 2012

Well pads like this one form a ring around a residential subdivision near Douglas.
Credit Willow Belden

In October, we reported that Chesapeake Energy had drilled a series of oil wells near Douglas, very close to people’s houses. Chesapeake says the area will likely continue to be a core drilling region. That has some area residents uneasy. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Chesapeake has 55 wells running in Converse County, and plans to keep drilling for at least the next few years. And they’re not the only company. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission permits 250 to 300 new wells in the state each month, and many of those are in Converse County.

County Commissioner Mike Colling says the oil boom is boosting the area’s economy.

MIKE COLLING: Our motels, hotels, gas stations and so forth should be doing a great business. That’s good for the business man.

BELDEN: But some people are worried. Janice Switzer lives a few miles outside of Douglas, and her subdivision is surrounded by a ring of new oil wells. This summer, Chesapeake started flaring the wells, which is when they burn off the gas that comes up as a byproduct with the oil. When the flaring started, Switzer’s garden died and she began having headaches. At a public meeting that Chesapeake hosted this week, she expressed frustration.

JANICE SWITZER: I’m still having headaches up there. When I wake up every morning, my house is shaking because the flares are so big. … I still haven’t been even contacted by anybody to say at least, ‘We’re sorry; what can we do?’

BELDEN: Todd Parfitt with the Department of Environmental Quality defended flaring.

TODD PARFITT: The flaring itself is a control device, and the purpose is to remove those hazardous air pollutants or volatile organic compounds – to destroy those.

BELDEN: In other words, you pollute less when you burn gas, rather than just  venting it into the atmosphere. But Jill Morrison with the Powder River Basin Resource Council says flaring can still cause problems.

JILL MORRISON: It’s destroying some of the pollutants, but when that flare is going off, you’re still emitting pollution. … Initially when these flares go off, they are burning a lot of the contaminants that I think come from the fracking. … And those are going to affect people who are also nearby who are breathing that air.

BELDEN: It’s hard to quantify the risks, because DEQ does not have an air quality monitor in Converse County. The agency is planning to bring in a monitoring device next year, but some residents say that’s too late. They also feel regulators aren’t adequately patrolling the well pads. This summer, several flares let off black smoke for days on end, which meant they weren’t burning cleanly. But nobody fixed the problem until residents complained. Todd Parfitt with DEQ says the agency doesn’t have the manpower to keep an eye on every well.

PARFITT: We do rely a lot on residents and the public to notify us if they see something out in the field that’s of concern. I mean, the reality is that we can’t be everywhere all the time with our staff.

BELDEN: The Oil and Gas Commission imposes a 15-day flaring limit on companies …. But since Chesapeake doesn’t have a pipeline to transport the gas to market, they applied for – and received – an extension, which allow them to flare several wells for up to six months.

Jill Morrison with the Powder River Basin Resource Council says that’s way too long. She’d like Wyoming to adopt tougher rules.

MORRISON: If you cannot put that resource in a pipeline to be used to produce energy, then you can’t drill the well, or you can’t produce the well until you can get that resource in a pipeline.

BELDEN: Some community members also have concerns about potential health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. And there are social concerns related to the oil boom. Parents worry that an influx of rig workers could lead to higher rates of alcoholism and crime in the community. And they’re annoyed by the increasing truck traffic. One rural road that used to see eight vehicles per day now sees 800.

And then there are concerns about another blowout. This spring, one of Chesapeake’s wells blew out, spewing gas into the air. Now, wells are being drilled much closer to the road, and that’s led to concerns that if there were another blowout, emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to get through. Chesapeake’s Sandy Andrew responded that another blowout probably won’t happen.

ANDREW: That is a very, very unusual event in our business. … We’re taking great strides to ensure that that does not happen again … and that if an incident like that were to occur, we deal with it quickly and appropriately.

BELDEN: Since this is the first time this type of wells have been so close to residential areas in Wyoming, some want the state to adopt new rules. For instance, groups like the Powder River Basin Resource Council want Wyoming to put a halt to drilling within a several-mile radius of homes. Currently, wells can be as close as 350 feet to a house. Even Bob King with the Oil and Gas Commission says it’s worth considering that type of change. But in the meantime, more wells continue to spring up throughout the area. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.