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What The Frack – hydraulic fracturing explained

The debate over hydraulic fracturing rages on but debating the topic becomes difficult with the complexity of the process, news editor Kara Mason breaks down fracking for everyone to understand.



flickr | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

flickr | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Natural gas burns cleaner than both coal and oil, it emits less carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, and the U.S. Energy Information administration says when used in a combined cycle-power plant, natural gas emits less than half of the CO2 coal combustion does. 

Extracting this natural gas, however, is not so easy. ProPublica reports that nine out of 10 natural gas wells in America use hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, to obtain the energy source. 

Both the process and the regulations surrounding the industry have become controversial. Many environmental groups claim rules and regulations are not adequate enough to protect the community and environment, while many corporations are claiming their technology is safe. 



Citizens of Colorado communities that experience fracking find themselves in the midst of a debate saturated with jargon and the need for complex scientific understanding. Understanding the law requires understanding the science, which is difficult. Environmental impacts, health effects, and regulations have taken center stage while essential information and statistics remain scattered and muddied with rhetoric. 

Pueblo County will likely never experience fracking but for places like the San Luis Valley, the eastern plains and western slope, natural gas exploration is no stranger. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2011, 80 percent of active natural gas wells were in just eight counties. 

Weld county has the most drilling with 17,388 wells. Other Colorado counties that have a significant number of wells include Garfield with 8,928, Yuma with 3,797, Las Animas with 3,066, and Rio Blanco with 2,095. Thirty-six other counties in the state have a combined 6,371 wells. 

Similar to national statistics, the COGCC says that over 90 percent of natural gas wells in the state use fracking. 

With drilling occurring in many Coloradoan’s backyards, and the debate around the subject is as complicated as the process, the biggest questions behind fracking have become what is truth, what is not and what is rhetoric. 

So, what is fracking, really?

Geologic formations, usually shale, limestone or sandstone, deep in the earth can hold pockets of natural gas. Decomposition of dead organisms within the rock creates the natural gas. In traditional drilling, gas makes its way naturally to porous rock where it can easily be sucked out of the earth. 

Due to the lack of permeability in the deep shale formations, the rocks must be fractured to release the gas. To achieve this, millions of gallons of water, accompanied by chemicals and sand are pumped into the earth with tremendous pressure, thus the term hydraulic fracturing.  

Fracking fluid, chemically and sand infused water, has become controversial for its ingredients. The chemicals are needed for lubrication of the casing as well as breaking down minerals in the earth. 

In 2012, ProPublica published a list of known ingredients of fracking fluid. Ninety-eight to 99.5 percent of the fracking fluid is water. However, what makes up the rest ranges from common household items to what ProPublica calls “just plain weird.”Methanol, pine oil, isoproponal (found in glass cleaners), diesel, instant coffee, lead, formic acid (used for tanning leather) and walnut hulls are among the ingredients found in the fluid., a chemical disclosure registry used by 10 states to track the chemical lists, states that there is not a “one size fits all” formula for fracking fluid because every company, geographic location and well is different. Some chemicals may be used to lessen bacteria growth while others are used for lubrication. 

Fracfocus indicates the number of chemicals used in fracking fluid for any given well ranges between three and 12. 

It should be noted that a report done by the Harvard Law School in April indicates FracFocus makes it too difficult for states, including Colorado, to track if companies are submitting their chemical lists. It was reported by the Associated Press that FracFocus creates loopholes and makes it possible for operators “to avoid sharing information required by state law.”

Though regulations vary from state to state, Colorado law requires all operators to maintain material safety data sheets for any chemical brought to a well site. 

Operators are also obligated to “maintain a chemical inventory for any chemical used downhole, in cumulative amounts exceeding 500 pounds in any quarterly reporting period,” according to COGA. 

If physicians or health professionals request the chemicals used in fracking fluid, an operator must oblige. Trade secrets also must be handed over to the COGCC per Colorado law only if the director states the information is necessary in the event of a spill or public health impact, otherwise they are not can remain disclosed. 

COGCC keeps records, reports and inventories on file for at least five years.  However, state law dictates that chemical lists are kept on file for the life of the well plus an additional five years after the well is plugged and abandoned.  

Since the 1940s, when drillers first began using the process, fracking has occurred in around one million natural gas wells. They first started in limestone and sandstone formations but have since become more frequent in shale formations. 

COGA lays out a basic timeline for a typical site that uses fracking. Oil companies must first apply a permit from the state to drill from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Committee. COGA reports, “this includes well design, location spacing, operation, water management and disposal, air emissions, wildlife impact, surface disturbance, and worker health and safety.”

The COGCC strongly suggests an operator submit a Comprehensive Drilling Plan that lays out “foreseeable oil and gas activities in a defined geographic area, facilitate discussions about potential impacts, and identify measures to minimize adverse impacts to public health, safety, welfare and the environment.” Drilling plans are not mandatory, however. 

After the permit is obtained site preparation usually lasts seven to 14 days. On a plot of five acres, this process includes constructing roads and clearing the well-pad site.  

Regulations prevent drilling less than 150 feet from any property line, building unit, public road or aboveground utility line. If the area around a well is classified as a high-density area regulations become stricter.  

Next the well is drilled, this lasts three to four days for a vertical well and 10-15 days for a directional well. Wells are drilled with fresh water and bentonite clay. Casing is also installed at this time.  

The Environmental Protection Agency reports that “vertical well sections may be drilled hundreds to thousands of feet below the land surface and lateral, or directional, sections may extend 1,000 to 6,000 feet away from the well.”

Colorado law requires three different types of casing to line the wellbore, the hole drilled by the bit.

Conductor casing, COGA calls this the first string of casing in the well, is cemented into place and is meant to keep soft formations closer to the surface from caving in and “to conduct drilling mud from the bottom of the hole to the surface when drilling starts.”

Surface casing, which comes after conductor casing, extends hundreds to thousands of feet into the ground. This casing extends beyond all known drinking water sources. 

Production casing is the innermost casing. This isolates the producing interval. 

This casing must pass a survey, the cement bond log which tests the hardness and quality of the production casing. 

The entire casing construction is tested with pressure greater than what is expected to occur with fracking to “ensure the finished wellbore’s integrity,” according to COGA. 

COGA reports that hauling lasts anywhere from 35-40 days, but depending on the time schedule and the contractor there may be days where there is no hauling after drilling. 

Propublica reports, “Roughly 200 tanker trucks deliver water for the fracturing process.”

Actual fracking only lasts one to three days on each well. This includes pumping the fluid through the casing as well as removing the pumps and trucks. 

Fracking begins with mechanical perforations through the casing into the production zone. Perforating guns punch holes through the casing and cement into the formation with charged explosives. 

“Once the perforations are complete, hydraulic pumps and blending equipment pressurize a mixture of water, sand, and other chemical additives into the shale formation to create small fractures,” COGA reports. 

After openings in the casings have been made, the combination of sand, chemicals and water are mixed and pressured down the casing into the shale formation to create cracks. 

These cracks are “propped” open by the sand, which remains after the fluid is depressurized and siphoned out of the well. 

In 2010, the EPA estimated that between 70 million and 140 billion gallons of water are used in natural gas wells in America each year. 

Once the shale formation has been fracked, the gas is released into a wellbore where it can be extracted for the next 30 years. COGA refers to this step as production and reclamation. 

Before the well is sealed, Colorado law says, “All oil, gas and water strata above and below the producing horizon shall be sealed or separated in order to prevent the intermingling of their contents.”

A powerpoint available on the COGCC website from May 6 states there have been 399 spills/released reported, 63 groundwater impacts, 22 surface water impacts, and zero water well impacts. 

The most common cause of these impacts are failure equipment (211 instances), followed by human error (62 instances). Produced water, or the water produced during fracking, is the most common contaminate. 

The possibility and examples of contamination to water has been the subject of much debate over fracking. The COGCC stated, in response to the documentary “Gasland”, each report of contaminated water is investigated and while there have been cases where thermogenic methane, related to oil and gas development, has been found in a well, contamination “is not present” or “the methane comes from biogenic sources.”

The Oil and Gas Conservation Act requires all operators using fracking to contribute $25,000 to the Environmental Response Fund, “a mechanism to plug and abandon orphan wells, perform orphaned site reclamation and remediation, and to conduct other authorized environmental activities.”

Even so, debate over fracking starts before the birth of a well and continues well after it has been plugged. 

The Colorado Hydraulic Fracturing State Review concluded in 2011 that regulations made by the state met standards set by STRONGER, a non-profit, multi-stakeholder organization whose purpose is to assist states in documenting the environmental regulations associated with the exploration, development and production of crude oil and natural gas, were “generally met.”

Still, debate continues over whether or not the process of fracking is as dangerous as environmentalist organizations conclude it is, whether or not there are enough regulations, and whether or not these regulations are being followed.  For each region and each instance the worry is a little bit different. For those who don’t experience fracking near their communities, the information can be overwhelming. The topic is complex; as are the arguments. To have a conversation about fracking means starting with the basics.

by Kara Mason


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Almost ‘All Aboard’ – Passenger train service may return to Front Range within the next 12 years



Three Southern Colorado historic passenger train stations – in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs – have not been used for their intended purpose in decades, and it could take at least another decade or longer, if at all, before another passenger boards a train at any of them.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, who is also chairman of the state’s Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission, says his commission has received the $8.7 million in funding it had requested last December from the state General Assembly as part of Senate Bill 1, a transportation bill, on May 9 – the last day of the 2018 legislative session. Pace says the funding will be used by his commission to start the first phase of a five-phase plan to bring south-north passenger rail service between Trinidad and Fort Collins in the next 10 to 12 years.

Pace says although he hopes that the existing historic train depots along the route (in Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs) are used for the project, the other members of the passenger rail commission, and a study to be done in regard to station locations – among other things – as part of the first phase, might suggest otherwise. The first phase should be completed about 2½ years from now.

Pace explains that the existing three train stations, two of which were built well over a century ago, were located in downtown areas and were designed to accommodate pedestrians. He says the train stops for the Front Range Passenger Rail have to account for the fact the many of the potential passengers will get to the station by car. He adds things like track alignment and rights of way are among the variables that will determine whether the historic passenger train depots are used.

In addition to determining train station locations, the first phase of the Front Range Passenger Rail project includes defining mobility needs, preferred alignment and routes, service operating characteristics, including time of service, speeds, and rail spacing. Phase I also will include public and stakeholder hearings.

A governing authority will be formed during the second phase to be implemented by November 2020. That phase is expected to cost $500,000. Phase III includes full environmental clearance from the federal government, which is expected to cost between $150 million to $300 million. Construction will start as part of the fourth stage with a cost to be determined. Phase V includes ribbon cutting and a grand opening to commence ridership.


The city of Walsenburg owns the town’s former passenger train depot located in the city’s downtown between Main and Russell streets. Walsenburg City Clerk Wanda Britt says, in its heyday, 11 passenger trains passed through the depot daily. Sometime after passenger train service stopped, the depot had been home to the now defunct Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce. Then, Britt says, the building was refurbished by the city, keeping the depot’s old façade, and the city now rents it out to Huerfano County government as office space and a tourist center.

Walsenburg town historian Carolyn Newman says the depot was built  in 1926 by two competing passenger railroad companies serving Walsenburg at the time – the Denver and Rio Grande Western, and the Colorado and Southern. Although she can’t say when passenger service ended, Newman says when she relocated to Walsenburg from England in 1957, she did so aboard a passenger train. A Nov. 4, 2010 report on the World Journal website, which serves Huerfano, Las Animas and Colfax counties, says the last passenger train left Union Depot in 1966. Newman adds that Walsenburg has two sets of tracks running through the town, which were mostly used to transport coal mined in Las Animas and Huerfano counties. The tracks go east and west through town but one later curves to go north and south, she says.

Walsenburg Mayor James Eccher says the city has been in the talking stages with the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission through its participation in the South Central Council of Governments (SCCOG) out of Trinidad, but nothing more. Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico serves on the Passenger Rail Commission and represents SCCOG. Incidentally, Trinidad has a functioning modern passenger train depot served by Amtrak’s Southwest Chief.

Eccher says Walsenburg’s Union Depot can easily be repurposed back to a passenger train stop, saying the building would have enough space – even its old ticket booth is intact. The mayor says one obstacle that might be an issue is that the parallel tracks that run through the city are owned by two different railroads – Union Pacific and BNSF. Although the mayor says he would welcome a passenger train stop in Walsenburg, he is skeptical because another passenger train route through the city going west and east from La Junta proposed by Amtrak has not materialized.


Built in 1889, the Pueblo Union Depot at 132 W. B St. is now owned by the Koncilja family, who seems proud of the 130-year-old facility.

“We believe the Pueblo Union Depot is the crown gem of the Union Avenue Historic District,” Joseph Koncilja says. “Our ownership of this historic property is more that of stewardship than ownership. Almost every family in the city of Pueblo has a connection with the Pueblo Union Depot either with their immigrant families arriving there at the turn of the century or through fond memories of leaving for military service during the World War I and World War II, and even Vietnam.”

Koncilja also relates the depot’s unique history. The depot came about, he says, as a result of a compromise between five feuding railroads involved in “contentious competition.” At one point a decade before the depot was built, Koncilja continues, during the Royal Gorge Railroad War, Old West legend Bat Masterson, to settle things down, took over a roundhouse near the depot site using a cannon that he took from the Pueblo armory. Masterson and other gunfighters, among them Doc Holliday, were hired in 1879 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, which was competing against the Denver and Rio Grande. The dispute ended, without a shot fired, on June 10, 1879, when a federal court ruled in favor of Denver and Rio Grande.

Getting back to after the Union Depot was built: “Over 40 trains a day passed through the depot in its heyday,” Koncilja says. “We estimate conservatively that over 50 million people passed through the depot until the end of passenger service in 1974.”

Koncilja says the depot is now used “primarily as a mixed-use development consisting of event catering, office space and luxury apartments on the third floor.” He calls it an anchor for the Union Avenue District and says it is also close to the Southeastern Colorado Heritage Center and Museum, which has one of the largest collections of historic artifacts in the city.

Koncilja seems optimistic about repurposing the old depot as a passenger train station. And Commissioner Pace says he has spoken with the Konciljas informally about possibly using the depot as part of the Front Range Passenger Rail project.

“We hope that the Depot will be able to participate in the return of passenger service in conjunction with Amtrak’s expansion from La Junta to Pueblo,” Koncilja says, “And later be incorporated into the Front Range rail corridor from Fort Collins to Trinidad. Other than track upgrades and some necessary switches, the depot is capable of servicing passenger cars at present.”

Colorado Springs

A passenger train made its last stop at the Colorado Springs’ Old Depot on April 30, 1971, says Spencer Kellogg, a volunteer with the Colorado Train Museum in Denver. The station was owned by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.

The Ochs family is credited with saving the Old Train Depot at 10 S. Sierra Madre St. (behind the Antlers Hilton Hotel and right under the bridge at Colorado Ave.) from demolition in the 1970s, according to a Colorado Springs Gazette newspaper article published on Oct. 19, 2011. The Gazette story was about the closing of Giuseppe’s Old Depot Restaurant after 38 years as a tenant at the depot. The article states that the site of the depot has been home to a train depot since the Colorado Springs founder William Jackson Palmer laid the tracks in 1872, with the current structure opening in 1887. The article further states that the city of Colorado Springs had wanted to buy the depot to use as a transit station, but that never came to be.

The El Paso County assessor’s office currently lists the depot’s owner as ODP LLC, which is a company formed by the Ochs family.  

Stauffer and Sons Construction was another former tenant at the Old Depot Square, which consists of the historic depot and a south building that was added sometime after the last passenger train stopped there and the building was turned into a shopping center.

Ron Stauffer posted a promotional article on the Stauffer & Sons’ website on April 4, 2014, which says that the current depot has plenty of free parking, which is unheard of in downtown Colorado Springs.

“The building we share has quite a history,” Stauffer’s story states, “it … brought many visitors to Colorado Springs from places like Utah and New Mexico (including President Harry Truman, who stopped here in 1948 for a whistle-stop tour during his election campaign!).”

Pulp was unsuccessful in attempts to reach the Ochs family by phone and email in regard to what the Old Depot Square is being used for now and what accommodations, if any, need to be made to the depot to welcome passenger trains again.   


Bringing life to existing passenger train depots should be a welcome sight for Walsenburg, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, with each city desperately seeking ways to revitalize their downtowns. That is why the stewards of these historic train stations might have their fingers crossed in the hope that the Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission will find a way to bring back these structures to their glory days as passenger train terminals.

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Western wild fires continue to rage as authorities worry over July 4 fireworks



A growing wildfire destroyed more than 100 homes in the Colorado mountains, while other blazes across the parched U.S. West kept hundreds of other homes under evacuation orders and derailed holiday plans.

Authorities announced late Monday that a fire near Fort Garland, about 205 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Denver, had destroyed 104 homes in a mountain housing development started by multimillionaire publisher Malcolm Forbes in the 1970s. The damage toll could rise because the burn area is still being surveyed.

Tamara Estes’ family cabin, which her parents had built in 1963 using wood and rocks from the land, was among the homes destroyed.

“I think it’s sinking in more now. But we’re just crying,” she said. “My grandmother’s antique dining table and her hutch are gone.”

“It was a sacred place to us,” she added.

Andy and Robyn Kuehler watched flames approach their cabin via surveillance video from their primary residence in Nebraska.

“We just got confirmation last night that the house was completely gone. It’s … a very sickening feeling watching the fire coming towards the house,” the couple wrote in an email Tuesday.

The blaze, labeled the Spring Fire, is one of six large wildfires burning in Colorado and is the largest at 123 square miles (318 square kilometers) — about five times the size of Manhattan. While investigators believe it was started by a spark from a fire pit, other fires, like one that began burning in wilderness near Fairplay, were started by lightning.

Nearly 60 large, active blazes are burning across the West, including nine in New Mexico and six each in Utah and California, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

In Utah, authorities have evacuated 200 to 300 homes because of a growing wildfire near a popular fishing reservoir southeast of Salt Lake City amid hot temperatures and high winds. Several structures have been lost since the fire started Sunday, but it’s unclear how many, said Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forest, Fire and State Lands.

Darren Lewis and his extended family planned to spend the Fourth of July at a cabin built nearly 50 years ago by his father and uncle in a wilderness area nestled between canyons and near a mountain river.

Instead, Lewis and his family will spend the holiday nervously waiting to hear if a half-century of family memories go up in smoke because of the fire, which has grown to 47 square miles (122 square kilometers).

“There’s a lot of history and memories that go into this cabin,” said Lewis, 44, of Magna, Utah. “The cabin we could rebuild, but the trees that we love would be gone. We’re just hoping that the wind blows the other way.”

Meanwhile, a wind-fueled wildfire in Northern California that continues to send a thick layer of smoke and ash south of San Francisco was threatening more than 900 buildings.

The massive blaze was choking skies with ash and smoke, prompting some officials to cancel Fourth of July fireworks shows and urge people to stay indoors to protect themselves from the unhealthy air.

At least 2,500 people have been told to evacuate as the so-called County Fire continues to spread, said Anthony Brown, a spokesman with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Brown said the blaze, which started Saturday and is surging through rugged terrain northwest of Sacramento, has grown to 113 square miles (294 square kilometers) amid hot and dry weather expected throughout the day. It was 15 percent contained Tuesday.

“The weather is better than what we had over the weekend. But it’s still hampering our efforts and it’s an area of concern,” he said.

So far this year, wildfires have burned 4,200 square miles in the United States, according to the fire center. That’s a bit below last year’s acreage to date — which included the beginning of California’s devastating fire season — but above the 10-year average of 3,600 square miles.

Because of the Independence Day holiday, authorities are also concerned about the possibility of campfires or fireworks starting new fires because of the dry, hot conditions. In Colorado, many communities have canceled firework displays, and a number of federal public lands and counties have some degree of fire restrictions in place, banning things like campfires or smoking outdoors.

In Arizona, large swaths of national forests and state trust land have been closed since before Memorial Day. Some cities have canceled fireworks displays because of extreme fire danger.

In New Mexico, all or part of three national forests remain closed because of the threat of wildfire, putting a damper on holiday camping plans. The forests that are open have strict rules, especially when it comes to fireworks.

“We’re just urging people to use extreme caution,” said Wendy Mason, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico State Forestry Division. “We want people to have fun and enjoy themselves, but we prefer they leave the fireworks shows to the professionals.”


Associated Press writers Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Olga R. Rodriguez in San Francisco; Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona; and Alina Hartounian in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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More firefighters called in to rein in Southern Colorado fire



Crews struggled to rein in a wildfire that was spreading in several different directions Sunday in southern Colorado.
More firefighters were arriving to battle the blaze that has prompted the evacuation of more than 2,000 homes.
“It’s a very challenging fire, I’ll be honest with you, with all the wind changes,” Shane Greer, an incident commander with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, told residents Sunday.
Authorities said the fire east of Fort Garland was estimated at 64 square miles (166 sq. kilometers) after unpredictable winds pushed the fire both north and south over the weekend.
About 500 firefighters have worked to contain the flames since the fire began Wednesday. A second team arrived in the area Sunday and plans to take over fighting the fire north of Highway 160.
The first team will focus on the area south of the highway.
“Usually with a fire we can chase it … we haven’t been able to chase this because it keeps going in at least three different directions,” Greer said.
Authorities said they began assessing some areas this weekend to track destroyed or damaged structures. But they cautioned that conditions remain dangerous and said they want to be sure that information is correct before notifying property owners.
The fire was expected to remain active and grow in intensity with a warm and dry forecast on Sunday.
Highway 160 remains closed and officials said they could not estimate when it will reopen or when the evacuation orders will end.
The Costilla County Sheriff’s Office on Saturday said a man was being held on suspicion of arson in connection with the fire. It is not clear if Jesper Joergensen, 52, has an attorney.
At Sunday’s public update, officials said they do not believe Joergensen started the fire intentionally.
State emergency management officials reported nine other fires remained active around the state on Sunday. Officials near Durango hoped that a cold front would slow down one of those. The fire began a month ago and is estimated at 77 square miles.
The Durango Herald reported that authorities planned to relocate some crews and equipment to help firefighters guarding communities as the flames moved north.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
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