Beneath the Surface

The United States holds enough oil and gas to power the country for hundreds of years, and Colorado is at the center of the search for energy resources. Using a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—and new drilling techniques, oil and gas companies are able to extract these previously inaccessible fossil fuels. These technologies may be the biggest step yet toward securing our energy independence. But at what cost?

December 2012


As America looks for more energy resources, the word “fracking” has become part of the lexicon. But what does it really mean?

There it is, that word—frack—with just two small letters separating it from one of the most vulgar, reviled words in the English language. We read about fracking in newspapers; we see it on the evening news; we hear it in political stump speeches. And, you know what? It’s difficult to know what to think. The industry calls it a modern oil and gas revolution. Others argue that fracking is creating health problems today—and that we have no idea what sorts of issues will pop up 10, 20, 30 years from now. One thing is certain: Fracking has become one of the most contentious debates of our time. Before we dig into some of these issues, let’s get one thing straight: What is fracking, anyway? • “Fracking” is shorthand for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process used to extract oil and gas locked in dense rock formations thousands of feet beneath Earth’s surface. In order to unlock these resources, companies inject a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals underground at an extremely high pressure, which fractures the dense rock and allows the oil and gas to seep from those fissures to the surface. A version of this process was first attempted in 1947 in an oil well in southwestern Kansas, not far from the Colorado border. • Since then, the fracking process has evolved, and perhaps more important, drilling techniques have evolved, too. In the past decade or so, oil and gas companies have developed what’s known as horizontal drilling, in which they drill vertically into the ground, hang a right, and continue drilling parallel to the surface for up to two miles. Sometime around 2005, when oil and gas companies began fracking horizontal wells, production started to boom. Long, narrow, and dense rock formations that were previously inaccessible sprouted bull’s-eyes. • In this package, we examine this complicated, controversial procedure, and many of the questions it raises. Will fracking lead us to energy independence? Or will it drive us farther down the road to environmental armageddon? As Colorado continues to be at the forefront of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, the answers to these questions, and many others, will be central not only to energy policy in the coming years, but also to the health and well-being of the people fracking affects.

Frack vs. Frac

Even the spelling of the word “frack” is controversial: Oil and gas industry folks, geologists, and linguists make the case that the accurate way to shorten the term “fracture” is “frac.” No “k.” That would mean that the shorthand would be “fracing,” or, for purists, the contraction “frac’ing.” 

Of course, English is a strange language, and, right or wrong, “fracking” has become the most commonly used spelling of the term. Critics say that this version is just a tool employed by environmentalists and protestors to perpetuate their negative campaign by associating “frack” with…well, you know what. 

For Love Of A Son

A small-town mom fights big-time fracking to protect her child’s health.

It was about a year ago when Angie Nordstrum first learned about the eight oil and gas wells planned less than 800 yards from her son’s school, Red Hawk Elementary, in Erie, Colorado. Two other schools and an early childhood learning center were nearby. Drilling for natural gas is not new for the town of 18,500, which straddles Boulder and Weld counties at the edge of the mineral-heavy Wattenberg Field and is home to 208 active wells. Nor was the drilling company’s presence new; Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. owns 1,100 wells in Weld County. Nearly all wells are hydraulically fractured after drilling is completed.

Nordstrum, 41, might never have cared—except that she had no choice. Eight years earlier, she’d been diagnosed with thyroid cancer while she was expecting her only child. She underwent surgery, but postponed her radiation treatments during pregnancy. In 2004 she gave birth—only to watch her son, during the first year of his life, develop the kinds of allergies that give parents nightmares. There were only about 10 foods on the planet he could eat without risking a reaction, and he couldn’t run around a school field because the smallest trace of whatever was sprayed on the grass left his skin with surface burns. (Nordstrum was treated for her cancer after she finished nine months of nursing, and has been cancer-free since 2010.) There was no way the boy could go to school. Instead, he learned and played in a “bubble” at home—a safe zone where he could grow up in a pollutant- and chemical-free environment. 

Today, although her son has outgrown some of his allergies, Nordstrum hasn’t stopped being hyperaware of environmental hazards. That’s why Red Hawk seemed like a good choice when he finally enrolled in school as a first-grader. The sleek, two-story building, built in 2011, is LEED-certified for sustainability with features like low-flow plumbing for water conservation, nontoxic finishes, and outdoor classrooms that teach students about Colorado’s natural environment. Part of its core vision is “celebrating multiple perspectives along with developing a sense of environmental responsibility that includes personal development and physical well-being.”

Nordstrum was stunned when she learned what the hydraulic fracturing, within sight of her son’s school, would entail. A mixture of chemicals, water, and sand would be pumped into the ground under extreme pressure to fracture the rock and release the trapped gas—and those chemicals could include carcinogens and other toxins. Industrial equipment, diesel truck traffic, and noise pollution would accompany the operation; the access route to the drilling site, called Canyon Creek, passed right in front of Red Hawk, where kids rode their bikes, got dropped off, and walked to and from school. This route would be used to cart tanks of waste away from the site.

The more people Nordstrum spoke with around Erie, the more alarming things she heard: kids having regular 20-minute bloody noses and people with chronic headaches. Several people on her own block had their gall bladders removed. Could they prove causality? No. Still, they believed the health issues could possibly be related to the drilling and fracking that had become pervasive in Erie and farther east into Weld County. Together with a handful of other concerned parents, Nordstrum founded a grassroots advocacy group called Erie Rising. 

In January 2012, Erie Rising gathered about 100 people at an Erie Board of Trustees meeting to express its concerns. Two months later, the town imposed a six-month moratorium on new drilling permits so experts could investigate and analyze data to better inform oil and gas related decisions. But permits had already been issued for the site near Red Hawk, so drilling and fracking would proceed there as planned. “It’s so violating to all of us,” Nordstrum says. “I’ve lived here for 10 years. I picked this community because of the family potential. We’ve got wonderful amenities: a rec center, library, trails, all within walking distance. We should be able to enjoy it.”

Encana suggests that the argument is moot because the company had approval to access that site before the school was built. Furthermore, Wendy Wiedenbeck, Encana’s community-relations advisor, says the so-called “fractivists” are creating hysteria based on unproven theories. “This doesn’t mean they don’t have genuine concerns, and that we don’t have a responsibility to listen,” Wiedenbeck says. “But to bring about change, we have to do it based on fact, not fear.” Encana fulfilled its promise to complete its drilling and fracking before the first day of school and says it has changed its schedule to avoid the busiest school hours. Most recently, the company found an alternate route to access the site that doesn’t encroach on Red Hawk Elementary. 

On mother’s day 2012, a couple of weeks before drilling was set to start, Nordstrum sent a letter to the top executives at Encana—the letter was also published in Boulder’s Daily Camera—that, in part, called for a halt to Encana’s operations at Canyon Creek: 

Our wish is that our children attend schools where they are not at risk of toxic chemical exposure, subterranean radioactive substances and toxic metals. Our wish is that our children get to harvest tomatoes and lettuce from their organic school garden; fresh produce that has not been contaminated by chemical-laden air particles. Our wish is for our children to play tetherball on the playground without having difficulty breathing. Our wish is that our children will not suffer from fracking chemical–related nosebleeds. Our wish is that our children will grow up cancer-free.

Nordstrum says no one from the company responded to her. 

When the six-month ban expired in September, the town of Erie chose not to renew it. Erie Mayor Joe Wilson says a third-party partial analysis for which the town paid disputes much of the activist rhetoric about Erie’s air quality and toxicity levels. Ultimately, the town entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with Encana and fellow oil and gas operator Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. The agreement requires, among other things, that the companies use the newest, cleanest technology available to eliminate toxic leakage.

The Canyon Creek wells by Red Hawk Elementary are currently “in production,” meaning they’re producing natural gas—and could continue doing so for up to 30 years. Sometimes Nordstrum’s son comes home from school and tells her not about his spelling or math test, but about the big trucks he saw at the drill site—which is what he sees when he looks out his school windows. She still recalls finding a coat of white dust—a lab test confirmed it was silica dust, a toxic byproduct of fracking—near the vegetable garden outside Red Hawk. “It has been so consuming of my life,” Nordstrum says. “I don’t think a lot of people grasp the gravity until it happens right next to their kid’s school. I try to be careful of not scaring him. And I try to portray that what’s going on in our community isn’t right—that it’s important to stand up for what we believe in.”